How two Sheffield Support Dogs Labradors are changing the lives of two autistic boys


For the first six years of Jacob Brailsford’s life, the only way he could go to the supermarket was to sit in a shopping cart, hidden under his coat.

Getting him out of the house was a challenge for mum Rachel and life became so difficult that she gave up work to focus all her attention on her son, who was diagnosed with severe autism and anxiety just before his third birthday.

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Life for the family is now on a different path, however, and that’s thanks to the calming influence of an autism service dog for seven-year-old Jacob. They welcomed Labrador Jai Jayy last September after being on the support dog waiting list for three years – longer than expected due to the pandemic.

Stanley Nutton with his service dog Dawnay. Photo: Support dogs

The Sheffield-based National Assistance Dogs charity celebrates its 30th anniversary and has been helping adults and children with autism, epilepsy and a number of serious medical conditions since 1992, helping them carry out a safer and more independent life.

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“Jacob was so excited to have Jai Jayy,” says Rachel, from Sheffield. “They had an instant bond, a bond I just can’t describe. I never thought a dog could make such a difference.

Jacob was diagnosed with autism after failing to start speaking and having poor mobility as a toddler. He suffered from extreme anxiety even as a baby. “It was very hard work,” recalls Rachel, who is now back to work as a part-time support worker in the nephrology unit at Northern General Hospital. “I used to work in the community as a support worker, but I had to quit my job because I couldn’t get by.

Jacob Brailsford with his service dog Jai Jayy. Photo: Support dogs

Jacob struggled in kindergarten and Rachel was regularly called to drive him home because his behavior impacted the other children. Autism affected the family’s life in every way.

“We persevered, but it wasn’t easy,” says Rachel. “The few times we went out for meals, we usually had to leave after half an hour. Supermarkets were a nightmare. We were never able to get him into the park – it was even difficult to get him out of the house.

Rachel and her partner Delton discovered Support Dogs after meeting another family who had benefited from the charity at an autism fair. Jai Jayy helps calm Jacob when he becomes restless and anxious. The difference, says Rachel, has been remarkable.

“Jacob is so happy to see Jai Jayy when he comes home from school and seems happier in himself. He’s like his best friend. Jacob isn’t hiding anymore. A friend of mine has two hyperactive kids and Jacob doesn’t was never able to handle it. The other week she came over, and I was getting ready for him to come upstairs, but he just sat on the couch. Such a difference.

“Just having Jai Jay there reassures Jacob, I think,” she adds. “Having Jai Jayy really changed things for us.”

In addition to providing companionship and helping to reduce stress in social settings, Support Dogs autism assistance dogs are trained to help keep children safe.

The child hangs on to a handle on their dog’s harness and the animal is trained to “prepare” if the child tries to run down the road. For the Nutton family in Barnsley, this proved invaluable.

Mum Gemma describes her five-year-old son Stanley as being “like 5,000 Duracell batteries on all the time. He’s at energy level one million…If there was a cliff, he would run away”.

Stanley, like many young people with autism, has a limited sense of danger and used to terrify his family by rushing and running down the road.

He wore an “adventure belt” around his waist that was attached to his mother’s waist or used a special needs stroller to keep him safe. But since the family welcomed Dawnay the Labrador into their home, trips outside are no longer fraught with difficulty.

“Stanley is a very bad bolter, he’s terrible near the roads and his concentration isn’t very good,” Gemma explained. “When we started training with Dawnay, we discussed whether he had the ability to hold his grip.

“Now he hangs on even when he’s not supposed to and will pull up on the sidewalk with Dawnay. He’ll even say ‘sidewalk’, where before he was running away all the time.

“When he’s with her, he manages to concentrate, hold the handle and stop at the side of the road. When he’s attached to Dawnay, she’s brilliant with her brace, and we know he’s safe.

Gemma and Stanley’s father, Alan, applied to Support Dogs after searching the internet to see what support was available following their son’s diagnosis.

“When our little boy was diagnosed with autism, it was like a grieving process,” says Gemma.

“We had to accept that her future might be different from the typical life you mapped out in your head when you have a child, we had to jump into her world and see everything differently.”

Dawnay also has a close bond with Stanley’s eight-year-old older sister Eva, who is autistic but well-functioning and suffers from anxiety.

“Dawnay is like a massive blanket. She will sit next to her and lick her face and turn away from the anger and anxiety to laugh,” adds Gemma. “She is good at capturing emotions. She’s just the right amount of everything.

Despite the Covid pandemic resulting in longer waits for its services and lower revenues, in 2022 Support Dogs is looking to expand to provide more help to more families.

Over the past 30 years, demand for his services, which are completely free, has grown dramatically, and for every dog ​​he trains, the charity says he now receives more than 50 more requests for help. .

As well as transforming lives, the charity says it prides itself on giving rescue center dogs a second chance – one in four of its service dogs are rescue dogs. He also recently set up his own puppy program, sourcing puppies from reputable breeders.

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