Ausnew Home Care | Autism assistance dog Winter retires after a decade opening a world of opportunity for James

Autism assistance dog Winter retires after a decade opening a world of opportunity for James

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The first time James King met Winter the Labrador, he fell face-first into the ground.

The then four-year-old did not know much about the family's new dog except that he was there to help him.

Being an autism assistance dog, it was Winter's responsibility to pull James — via a tether connected to James' waist — when he tried to "bolt" in public.

"So James immediately went to bolt off, like normal, and Winter anchored like he was supposed to and James face planted on the ground," James' mum Chantel King said.

A young boy rests his head on a black labrador lying down in the backseat of a car.
Winter would wear a yellow vest in public.(Supplied: Chantel King)

The instant bond between James and Winter allowed the family to properly experience family outings for the first time.

"My husband and daughter were always doing things together. James and myself would stay at home because James had a habit of either running off into traffic, or just disappearing," Ms King said.

The best option they found was to keep James in a special needs pram, a common tool for families, until Ms King stumbled on a new Guide Dogs SA program offering autism assistance dogs.

At that point however the program was only offered in Adelaide, not regional Mount Gambier where they live.

They put together a pilot program for the King family. 

A black labrador dog wearing an orange vest sits on a wooden floor.
Ms King travelled to Adelaide to train Winter before his arrival in Mount Gambier.(Supplied: Chantel King)

Ten years on and 13-year-old James and Winter are still best buds. The family have been able to go places they never considered possible.

Despite still being "restricted" in some way, having Winter has allowed James to gain independence.

"[I] can actually go out and explore the world without the parents having to fear about [me] running away or running into traffic because the dog will be tethered to [me] and then will just lay down and anchor," James said.

Freedom for the family

The King family has been able to travel with James and Winter to the Adelaide Zoo and Rundle Mall.

They even managed to catch a flight to Adelaide and then Sydney, staying in the city for a couple of nights.

A boy stands holding a small kangaroo alongside a women and seated black labrador dog.
James today with his mother Chantel, Winter, and a rescue kangaroo they're looking after.(Supplied: Chantel King)

As well as keeping James physically safe, Winter can help his parents anticipate a meltdown.

"Quite often Winter can actually inform me ahead of time of what mood James is in just by how close he'll stick to James," Ms King said.

Having Winter with them has also helped the King family feel a sense of validation.

People will often stop them in the shops to ask questions.

Winter's retirement

Winter has now retired from his official capacity as an orange-vested assistance dog but remains a valued family pet and James' companion.

"James has expressed that he would like another dog to take out in public. And it's certainly something that we wouldn't say no to," Ms King said.

It may not be so simple as she is unsure whether they would be eligible for another dog from Guide Dogs SA.

"Simply because I know they have a massive, long waiting list," Ms King said.

A young boy lies on a carpet floor alongside a black labrador with toy cars lined along its torso.
It's not all hard work for Winter.(Supplied: Chantel King)

They may have to fundraise to get one privately.

"Because [Winter] was provided by Guide Dogs SA, and we met all of their criteria, we were lucky enough to get him for free," she said.

"I know it costs about the same when you go privately. [But] they do a fantastic job so you do get what you pay for.

"I do think it should be more eligible for families that have children on the spectrum [though]."

While James knows the benefits of having Winter, one is clear.

"Well, the benefits for the kid is definitely a best friend for life," James said.

"He'll constantly be there to continue giving me emotional support and cuddles whenever I need them."


Source: ABC

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