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new leash of life How assistance dog Elsa has transformed the world of a boy with autism

Young Lucas has his life changed by assistance pooch Elsa but funding is needed to help other children around Ireland

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Lucas with his dog Elsa.

Lucas with his dog Elsa.

Lucas with his dog Elsa.

She’s a boy’s best friend, the loveable dog who keeps her young owner company — but also keeps him safe.

Assistance dog Elsa is more than your typical family pet as her skills and training have transformed the world of a boy with autism and his family.

For young Lucas Wester and his loved ones, Elsa’s arrival has already proven to be a life-enhancing experience, just three months after the Labrador/golden retriever cross first arrived at the family home in Enfield, Co Meath.

She has given Lucas, whose autism means he can run away, putting himself in danger, a whole new sense of independence.

“I can tell her to stand and I can tell her to wait and Lucas just falls into place. It’s amazing,” said mum Joanna Biggs.

“He’s attached to her and he’s like: ‘We’re walking. Oh, she’s stopping, I’m going to stop’. And he just relaxes.

"He loves the freedom because nobody’s holding on to him even though he’s attached. He doesn’t feel like he’s attached because he’s holding a little handle. He feels independent.”

The family have waited several years for Elsa’s arrival and have already seen huge progress for Lucas (12), whose tendency to run made walks and outings challenging and stressful.

“One of the hardest things I find with Lucas is he’s always trying to escape and he doesn’t understand danger,” said Joanna.

“He just wants to run and he wants to be free. And he wants to jump and skip and roll. He’s always trying to escape either from the house, or when you’re out and about. I’m ready to grab him if he starts to run. That causes stress and anxiety.”

Now Lucas is thriving thanks to Elsa’s support and assistance, and proud to be an ambassador for a top Irish charity.

Autism Assistant Dogs Ireland (AADI) is one of four charities, along with Down Syndrome Ireland, Barnardos and ISPCC Childline, being backed by the Woodie’s Heroes campaign.

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Last year, the fundraiser surpassed its target of €250,000 and raised over €417,000 for children’s charities despite the challenges faced by the communities around Ireland due to Covid-19.

This summer, Woodie’s will build on this success and hope to reach their goal of €500,000 thanks to the generosity of their customers and suppliers and the work of their staff.

Joanna had hoped that Elsa would help support Lucas’s movement and independence, but she has also noticed how close they have become.

Recently the boy, who is non-verbal, was able to communicate to his mum that he wanted to go by gently moving Elsa’s head to go.

“That was huge, because that’s Lucas communicating: ‘Right I’m bored now and I want to go’ but in the most appropriate way. I was delighted to see that. He’s walking, he’s engaging. And it’s fantastic.

“He wouldn’t really have a way of telling me what he wants when he’s out, like if he’s tired, or he’s hot or his feet are sore. He does tend to have behaviours and those behaviours could look like dropping to the ground, he might take his shoes and socks off.”

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Mum Joanna says Elsa has changed the family’s lives.

Mum Joanna says Elsa has changed the family’s lives.

Mum Joanna says Elsa has changed the family’s lives.

Elsa’s arrival has opened up a new world to Lucas, Joanna and big sister Leah. They used to bring Lucas out in a specially adapted buggy but as he gets older that became a less-practical solution.

“We have been to places if we’re out for a meal where she will be very good and she will sit beside him, and he’s relaxed. So I find just the small bit of things that I’ve done so far have been huge. I’m really looking forward to exploring more and more.”

The family were delighted to back the fundraising campaign in support of the charity that has transformed their lives.

“I’ve had nothing but good interaction with them, and support and backup and training,” said Joanna. “Their training is exceptional, the dogs are exceptional.”

Joanna feels that Elsa’s arrival has opened up a world of future potential for her boy. “She’s interacting with Lucas amazingly. Lucas doesn’t really engage with animals. With Elsa, I wasn’t sure that he would be that bothered with her in the house, but he has engaged immensely.

“Elsa’s temperament is ideal for Lucas — in the beginning the child gets matched with the dog, which is essential. Lucas is always on the go. Elsa is calm and relaxed. She’s just really chilled out and she’s lovely for him.

"With Elsa, it’s like she’s this four legged person who’s walking around and wants to be with him and wants to play with him or wants to sit with him and he’s just loving it.”

Dogs like Elsa begin training at eight weeks old up until they are two years old, which costs AADI €22,000. AADI, based in Cork, also provides aftercare and ongoing training support to the family throughout the dog’s working life.

With more than 1,000 enquiries annually from parents desperate for their support and more than 92pc of AADI’s funding coming from donations and fundraising, Woodie’s Heroes plays a vital role in aiding AADI to increase the number of dogs they train and place each year and help even more children nationwide.

You can donate to the campaign in store at the till, online or by text. Text one of the below keywords to 50300 to donate €4: ISPCC, Barnardos, AADI, DSI. *Each text cost €4. Our charities will receive a minimum of €3.60. Service Provider is Like Charity. Helpline 076 6805278.

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