Autism assistance dog Ralph made an incredible mark on family
AN AUTISM assistance dog who got married, raised money for charity, helped children with dog phobias and changed the lives of two young boys with autism is being remembered this week by his family.
Ralph, a golden doodle, sadly passed away last month leaving Eleanor Bermingham and her two sons, Mikey, 14, and Darragh, seven, who both have autism, devastated.
The family had Ralph since he was a puppy, when he was part of a brand-new pilot project, being run by the Cork-based charity My Canine Companion, for training dogs to be autism service dogs.
“We got Ralph in 2011, when My Canine Companion was set up,” explained Eleanor, who is originally from Brittas and now lives in Newcastle.
“It was originally a pilot project to see about placing the pups with families they were going to end up with, and helping to train them.
“We’d go to Liffey Valley or The Square, just various different places where we’d teach the dogs how to be socialised.
“They can’t be distracted by other dogs or by food in a restaurant, and the dog has to be very suited to those environments from a young age.”
She added: “When we got Ralph, we realised that he had the same birthday as Mikey so they’ve always had four years between them.”
Ralph was a lifeline for Mikey, who is nonverbal, and for Eleanor, as it meant Mikey had a constant companion, and Eleanor was able to attach Mikey to Ralph with a harness when they went shopping or were in public spaces, as it was difficult for her to keep ahold of Mikey all the time.
“Mikey is completely nonverbal, but he’s a very sensory child,” said Eleanor, “so he used to love cuddling Ralph and petting him.”
Shortly after the family got Ralph, Eleanor became pregnant with her second child, Darragh, who was diagnosed with a milder form of autism at two-and-a-half-years-old.
“We didn’t get Ralph for Darragh, but he ended up with him,” explained Eleanor. “He was very anxious and very nervous, but we found that Ralph was super for him, and made him feel really safe.
“Darragh would put his head down into Ralph’s coat when he was feeling nervous.”
Outside of his role as a calming and reliable presence for Mikey and Darragh, Ralph also assisted Eleanor’s brother, children’s psychotherapist Dr Colman Noctor, when he was treating children with dog phobias.
“My brother would do a lot of work with children with dog phobias,” she said. “Towards the end of their treatment, he would get me to bring Ralph down and they’d pet him. Some of them even went on to get their own dogs.”
In 2013, Ralph walked down the aisle and married a Labradoodle called Breff in Blarney, Cork, raising thousands of euros for My Canine Companion in the process.
But his most important role was as a member of the Bermingham family, whom he left an indelible mark on.
“When we got Ralph originally, I was married and pregnant with my second child,” said Eleanor. “Then I separated from my husband when Darragh was two, so it was me with the two boys and Ralph.
“I moved into a new house, and Ralph was always with me, and he was always in the room with me when the boys were with their father at the weekend.”
In the last year, Eleanor noticed Ralph was slowing down, and a scan revealed that he had developed a large tumour.
“I could see that he was failing, so the kindest thing to do was to let him go,” Eleanor said.
Ralph passed away on September 16, and Eleanor wanted to thank The Animal Hospital vet clinic in Tallaght for looking after Ralph over the course of his life.
While Eleanor said she is unsure how much Mikey understands about Ralph passing away, she has told Darragh that he is in heaven and created a photo of Ralph in clouds with wings to help him to understand.
“It feels like losing a family member, it’s a very big adjustment,” she said.
However, Eleanor wanted to talk about Ralph to highlight the importance of autism assistance dogs, and the difference that they can make.
“I’d just like people to recognise how much of a difference these dogs make to children with autism, and their families,” she said.
“It makes life easier at home, it makes life easier when you’re out, and it takes an awful lot of stress out of the child and helps them if they’re anxious.
“I’d just like people to know what a life-changing experience it’s been for me and the children to have Ralph. He touched so many people over the ten-and-a-half years that he was here.”
For more information on autism assistance dogs, visit www.mycaninecompanion.ie