Dogs have been everyone's best friends through the pandemic, bringing laughter and affection in the darkest times. For one small girl, however, who was trapped in a silent world, her black Labrador, Oslo, has helped her to laugh and even say occasional words.
Emily Chilvers, 7, lives with non-verbal autistm. Her dad, project manager Steven Chilvers, 42, and accountant mum Dawn, 48, soon noticed that while her twin sister, Olivia, was hitting the usual milestones, Emily was not and, aged two-and-a-half, she was diagnosed with autism.
Steven, of Long Buckby, Northamptonshire, said: "Comparing the twins’ development, it was obvious quite early on that there was something a little bit different with Emily.”
An assessment resulted in an autism diagnosis – which can mean people find it hard to communicate and interact with others, also having difficulties understanding how other people think or feel, as well as finding lights or loud noises overwhelming, stressful or uncomfortable.
“Emily’s diagnosis wasn’t a surprise. We pretty much knew because the signs were there," explains Steve.
“She was non-verbal, didn’t make eye contact and would play repetitively.” He added: “Her diagnosis simply meant that we could start to access the help we needed.”
Emily also finds having clothes and shoes on overwhelming and, until very recently, could only tolerate wearing one particular piece of clothing when she went outdoors – a red dress. “Fortunately, her nana is a wonderful seamstress," said Steve, "so, as Emily has grown, she has made her bigger versions of the red dress using the exact same material.
“But obviously, not wearing shoes meant that getting her out of the house was a really difficult thing to do.”
Looking at ways to improve life for Emily, her parents discovered that dogs might be able to help her cope with everyday things, such as socialisation and outings.
Steven said: “My mum has always had dogs so I understand the support and comfort that you can get from animals. And Emily has always liked animals – the bigger the better. She really loves cows.
“But it wasn’t until Dawn was researching online about the kind of help available for children with autism, that she found Dogs for Good.”
It's a charity pairing people living with disabilities with specially trained assistance dogs, and Emily’s parents thought this was a wonderful idea.
“We wondered if it was something that could benefit Emily, so we filled out an application form, went through the assessment process and waited for the right match," explained Steven. "We were paired with Oslo, an 18-month-old black Labrador and we knew from the first meeting that he was the right fit.
“He came for a visit with his instructor and Emily responded very positively to him straight away.”
Before coming home in July 2019, Oslo was put through a four month training programme.
“They trained him for things like socialisation and taught him to cope with a variety of situations.
“It’s remarkable the work that the charity puts in to making sure these dogs are properly ready for their new home.”
Since Oslo became part of the family, Steven says he has been a crucial factor in Emily’s development.
“She was really excited and squealy the day he moved in. We let him have a run around in the back garden and she couldn’t take her eyes off him. Since that day, Emily has come on leaps and bounds," adds Steven.
"We’ve noticed that her speech has really developed. She will say ‘Oslo’, ‘hug’ and ‘doggy’ now as well as phrases like ‘take Oslo for a walk’.
“She never used to be great at getting up in the morning, but now we send Oslo into her bedroom armed with sniffs and licks and all we hear is Emily giggling, which is obviously a far better way for her to start the day.”
Oslo has also helped Emily to tolerate clothing. She will now wear slip-on shoes and a coat over her red dress, because she knows it means she can then go for a walk with her beloved dog.
“After a few small walks eased her in, Emily is happy now to hold onto Oslo’s harness and go for a walk with us to the local shops to get an ice cream," said Steven.
“She’s really happy being with him and the other day, she even sat down beside him to give him a cuddle. For a non-cuddly child, that’s a big thing and a clear demonstration of her bond with him.”
Oslo’s calming presence has even helped her to tolerate family outings. "We recently went to the Sea Life Centre in Birmingham, which was lots of fun and we all had a great time. We also went to Hunstanton beach and on the way back stopped off for a coffee and a break at the services.
“They are simple things, but we’d never have been able to do any of them before Oslo came into our lives and provided a positive focus for Emily," Steven said.
“She has really come out of her shell since we adopted Oslo. We’d recommend any family in our position doing the same. Oslo has really changed our lives.”
Dogs for Good, alongside its charity partner MORE THAN insurance, helps families like Emily’s benefit from the unrivalled support of an assistance dog like Oslo. For more information on the charity, visit: www.dogsforgood.org
Additional reporting, PA