I had been considering getting a new dog for a little while after our lovely Labrador had passed away some years ago. However, I was having some trouble convincing my husband that a puppy would be a good idea!
In March 2018 I attended training on Selective Mutism, where we discussed the growing trend of using animals in therapy. I was travelling home from the course on the train with another Speech and Language Therapist, Rachel Hawley. We got talking to a woman who had her dog with her and she told us how she took her dog to work with her – she was a support worker for Adults with Learning Disability. The dog was adorable and there it was – my perfect way in to convince my husband!! A working dog; he couldn’t argue with that!
I immediately got researching breeds that would work well for therapy dogs and started thinking about training. In August 2018 we got our Cavapoo, Bobbi. I attended an Animal Assisted Therapy course which was invaluable. I knew I needed all the right training for Bobbi as well as being able to write risk assessments and having the right insurance.
I decided really early on that it made sense for her to understand Makaton signs. I am a Makaton Tutor, many of my clients use Makaton signs and I knew puppies/ dogs respond well to hand signals so why not?
In the early days, it really helped with toilet training – we taught her the sign for toilet and she would trot outside when shown the manual sign. I believe it has helped with her developing her vocabulary too.
She is now nearly 2 years old and understands a range of signs, including Toilet, Food, Sit, Lie down, Carrot, Outside, Ball, Teddy, Stay/ wait, Stand, Come, and Give.
She is currently learning the sign for ‘reindeer’, as she loves to chew an antler, as well as the signs for colours – even though dogs having a limited spectrum of colours they can see, I’m convinced I can teach her using sound and colour switches – might have to rethink that one though.
She works with a range of clients from PMLD to high functioning Autism and Selective Mutism. For non-verbal children and adults, to be able to give instructions with Makaton signing and for the dog to respond is really empowering and motivating. For children and adults with anxiety, she is an added bonus. The use of signing and non-verbal communication as part of a shaping programme for children or young people with Selective Mutism has been invaluable. I’m sure I’ll keep finding ways she can assist children, young people and adults with speech and language therapy.
She has been a really powerful addition to the therapy we offer and would not be without her now.
Rachel Hawley, who was with me on that train back in 2018, has now got a puppy too, with a view to training her as a therapy dog. We best get teaching Tilly some signs too!