SCIENTISTS have begun new research to understand the minds of dogs and try to measure how much they can benefit humans who need help. Michael Hickling reports. Pictures by Jonathan Gawthorpe and Gerard Binks.
Hilton Byrnes has his own Facebook page, which isn’t surprising really since he loves being the centre of attention. His eager charm and genial tolerance have already made him a legend in his own front room.
One teatime recently, he was sliding about on the polished floor and grinning at the applause from the audience on the settee. He lay down and played the fool when a collie puppy came through from the kitchen wanting to roll around and pretend to fight.
Hilton is a two-year-old yellow labrador. He is in this family home to do a job and his sense of fun is part of the reason why he’s so good at it. He has been trained in tasks such as helping his disabled owner remove her socks and cardigan, close the door and retrieve things she’s dropped on the floor. But it’s Hilton’s personality which is the key because it’s this which has cemented a bond for life between dog and human owner.
Emotionally, it’s a two-way street. Hilton (Hilly) was an insecure dog before he came to live here. Taking on the responsibility of helping 17-year-old Hollie Byrnes has taken him out of himself in the 11 months since he’s been living here. And for Hollie, Hilton’s arrival at her home has changed her life.
Scientists are now trying to find out more about just how dogs are able to do this and to measure the mutual benefits they can help deliver. The sociologists call this social capital.
The jury’s still out on when this human-canine bond first formed. We were still hunter-gatherers at the time and evidence that has come to light in the past couple of years suggests the domesticated dog began with an orphaned wolf taken in by humans 30,000 years ago. Genetic diversity in dogs dates from the time of the first settled agricultural communities in the Middle East.
Lincoln University was the first in Europe to have a department specialising in veterinary behavioural medicine. It was set up by Professor Danny Mills who says: “Quite a lot of our work has been on dogs and how to maximise the benefits they bring.
“We are increasingly looking at the economic issue in order to engage with the Big Society agenda. If we can quantify the benefits financially, government might sit up and take notice.
“Keeping a dog is often regarded as a luxury but, economically, it can be very important. What is a dog’s value when you think that the lifetime cost to the state of one autistic child may be £3m?”
In Prof Mills’s department, Dr Hannah Wright is in the first year of a three-year project, funded by the Big Lottery, to measure the impact of a pet dog on an autistic child and its family.
Dr Wright is recruiting families to assist and the plan is to involve 120 of them who will be tracked and monitored over the course of the project.
It’s the first time science has been brought to bear on analysing dog and people relationships and interactions in detail, focusing on specific individuals.
“At the moment, the anecdotal is the only evidence we’ve got,” said Dr Wright. “We’ll be going into homes to video the interactions and try to pin down what is happening between dog and child.”
She has devised a ‘parent stress index’ comprising 36 questions, each of which receives a score of one to five. This will be completed before a family gets a pet dog, then again afterwards and later for a third time as a follow-up.
Dr Wright is working with Parents Autism Workshops (PAWS), part of the work of the Dogs for the Disabled charity whose Northern centre is at Nostell Priory, near Wakefield.
This is where Hilton the labrador came from, and the charity’s expert who matched him with Hollie Byrnes is Louise Hart.
“I trained Hollie and Hilton together,” she says. “Hollie has changed immensely. She was very shy and lacking in confidence in the beginning.
“Once she had been introduced to Hilton, you noticed a change. At one point she said ‘no’ to her mum who told me later it was the first time she’d ever said that. She was becoming more assertive – she has to be with a dog.
“The biggest thing for disabled people is social inclusion. People worry about saying the wrong thing when they meet them, so may say nothing at all. A dog opens social barriers, they make friends through the dog.”
Louise Hart has worked for the charity for 15 years. She supervises the last eight weeks of a dog’s training and the advanced placement.
“As dogs comes through, I’m matching them up with a client. It’s a bit like a marriage dating agency. You are creating a life partnership.”
Demand far outstrips supply. “I place 20 a year. I could do 60. It’s bespoke training for each one because you have to treat every one as an individual. There may be 10 people with MS and it affects them all in different ways. I assess how they can keep their independence. The gift of independence is priceless.”
Louise teaches her clients to treat the dog leash like an emotional telephone wire. “If you feel fear, it goes straight down the leash and the dog thinks, ‘Where’s the tiger?’”
Waiting at the centre on this particular Friday afternoon for a bit of additional instruction was Vito, a bright as a tack cocker spaniel. He is going to a seven-year-old with cerebral palsy, and just to show his versatility, Vito put on a demonstration of how to remove clothes out of a tumble-dryer.
Frankie, an 18-month-old labrador who was also on the point on joining a client, seemed to be dying to show his paces, too. Instructed to fetch items dropped on the floor, he shot out of his blocks like a greyhound.
It’s not just the efficiency of the retrieving it’s the enjoyment and exuberance he shows in his work which is a delight to see. Frankie’s big personality is going to give joy to someone soon and his demeanour seems to proves the old adage that a trained dog is a happy dog.
“I’ve placed more than 100 and every now and again you get really attached to one,” says Louise who has three pet dogs of her own.
“But it’s not in your best interests to have such a strong relationship; it can cause problems for the new owner. You get emotional stuff and you get some real highs. There’s no job like it in the world.”
Why are there so many stories of dogs reacting to an emergency with their owners moments before it actually happens?
“Their people-reading skills are better than ours,” says Louise. “They are capable of more than you think they can manage. It’s only a dog? Never say that. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. I’ve had huge experience of dogs and I never cease to be amazed at the strength of the relationship that underpins it.”
Once they go to live with their owners, the dogs will have public access rights to go wherever their owners wish. Some councils make over a carer’s allowance to them if their presence reduces the hours of overnight stays required by a human carer.
Hollie Byrnes’s mother, Sandra, was the one who made the initial inquiries about an assistance dog. They were waiting nearly two years.
“Hollie had started to worry me; she wouldn’t go out on her own,” says Sandra. “She didn’t like to be left on her own and when she was out, she was afraid people would look and she would whizz straight back with her head down.
“Now they look in a different way. Hilly’s taken the focus off her as a wheelchair user, and they ask instead, ‘what’s his name?’ The amount of confidence he’s given Hollie – she’s like a different girl.”
Hollie has rare congenital disorder called arthrogryposisis. She’s in the first year of a two-year course in health and social care at York College. Her ambition is to go to university to study to be an occupational therapist. Hilton sits with her all day long at college and occasionally snores in the lectures.
“I can’t remember what life was like before him,” she says. “I wouldn’t have stuck the college course because I didn’t know anyone. But everyone I come across wants to be friends with Hilly. He’s a comedian, very sensitive, copes with everything. We go to the pictures and then have a KFC. In the charity shops, all the ladies love him, he’s a bit of a celebrity. We’ve joined the Flyball team in York and won rosettes and have weekends away. We do it all as a family.
“Hilly had been taught to retrieve to open hands. That didn’t work for me so I’ve taught him to bring things to my lap and to do other tasks like tidy his toys up.
“If I’m nervous, he reads it off me. That stops me from being nervous. All those things I used to panic about, I can’t now.
“He loves to work. If nothing is happening, he’ll put my mobile on the floor so he can pick it up and give it back to me.
“I’m a different girl altogether. I feel I owe him an awful lot. He gave me confidence and a whole new lease of life. That makes him so special for me.”
It couldn’t be a better match and the anniversary of Hilton coming to live with Hollie is on July 27.
He’ll probably have a few more friends on Facebook by then.
BE PART OF THE AUTISM RESEARCH WITH YOUR PET
* Dr Hannah Wright’s research team is recruiting families who have a child with ASD and will be acquiring a pet dog within the next few months, to participate in telephone interviews. Please contact Kate Marsh: 01295 759836, firstname.lastname@example.org
* Dogs for the Disabled open day, 11am-2pm today, Nostell Estate Yard, Nostell, Wakefield. Entertainment for children and families. Tel 01924 860699.