Christmas appeal: How support dog Azerley ‘transformed’ one family’s lives

For the Hadfield family, life can be split into two distinct eras - before Azerley, and after the autism assistance dog joined them just over a year ago.

Cohen Hadfield with his Support Dog Azerley. Picture Bruce Rollinson

Because in mother-of-two Sarah’s words, Azerley has “transformed” their lives.

Before the dog came to live with the family in Kilnhurst, South Yorkshire, seven-year-old Cohen lived in his own world, did not speak, was anxious and unable to even make eye contact with those around him.

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Since receiving Azerley from Sheffield-based national charity Support Dogs, Cohen, who has autism, global developmental delay, a hearing impairment and complex epilepsy as well as other health issues, has “come to life”.

The Hadfield family with support dog Azerley: Mum and dad Sarah and Chris Hadfield, with Cohen, seven, and older brother Joshua. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

The Hadfield’s are one of more than 200 families whose lives have changed for the better having received a dog from the charity, and this Christmas, the Yorkshire Post is hoping to help another Yorkshire family by raising around £18,000 to fund the training of a support dog.

Over the last two decades Support Dogs, which is entirely reliant on donations, has trained epilepsy seizure dogs, disability assistance dogs, and autism assistance dogs like Azerley.

Mrs Hadfield, 34, who also has another son Joshua, 12, with husband Chris, 35, first got in touch with the charity when Cohen began to outgrow the pushchair the family used when out and about.

Azerley. Picture Bruce Rollinson

“Cohen has no sense of danger. He would either bolt straight onto the road or fall to the floor. We felt a wheelchair would be wrong as Cohen is such an active child, but we desperately needed to keep him safe. The attachment aspect of an assistance dog really appealed to us,” she said.

The process of being matched with Azerley took around three years in total, and after extensive training, Azerley moved in last August. The training has continued since, and Support Dogs is available whenever the family needs it for support.

Mrs Hadfield said: “We had no expectations. Cohen was not really interested in animals, and wasn’t really aware of the world around him. But the difference he has made is incredible.

“On the first day Azerley arrived Cohen became instantly calmer, his anxiety levels reduced so dramatically that he stopped biting his hand, something he had done for a over a year when he became frustrated.”

Since Azerley joined the family, Cohen has learnt to play and uses his imagination, his confidence has grown, and perhaps the biggest change of all, he has began to speak and interact with those around him.

Azerley has helped Cohen to develop a daily routine, and as well as being his protector when he is out of the house, he does everyday tasks such as getting Cohen’s school uniform out on a morning. But Azerley has helped Cohen and the family in much greater ways.

Mrs Hadfield said: “At home Azerley is very much a sensory teddy bear for Cohen. If he becomes anxious, he goes across and Cohen will stroke him to relax. He has a processing disorder which means he likes thing tight around him, so Azerley lies on his legs which really helps.

“While thinking back of the many amazing ‘firsts’ Cohen has accomplished with Azerley and I suddenly realised I’m not grieving anymore for the son he was. Because very slowly he is coming back. It has made a huge difference for the whole family, especially for our older son Joshua. We can now go out together. Azerley has given us a family life.”

Azerley is one of six dogs who will ‘graduate’ from Support Dogs on Sunday. Read more in Monday’s Yorkshire Post.