Support Dogs: How a support dog changes perceptions

Sam and his mum Emma with support dog WillowSam and his mum Emma with support dog Willow
Sam and his mum Emma with support dog Willow
Judging looks have turned to smiles and admiration – that’s how one mum of an autistic child describes a major difference a support dog brings.

Emma Mills’ son Sam was diagnosed with autism at the age of five, followed a year later by depression.

He has sensory difficulties, which means he struggles with noise and crowds and can often lash out and have meltdowns.

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Sam – who, like most autistic children has no sense of danger and can run into traffic – couldn’t leave the house, never felt safe and had “lost his smile”, said Emma, of Sheffield.

But in 2017, support dog Willow entered Sam’s life – and things changed for the better.

This week is Invisible Disabilities Week, which aims to highlight non-apparent, or hidden disabilities and break down barriers by making people more aware of the different types of conditions people have to manage on a daily basis.

Emma said Willow, an eight-year-old black Labrador trained by the Sheffield-based Support Dogs charity, has been instrumental in helping to improve understanding and reduce judgement when they’re out and about.

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She added: “Prior to having Willow, when Sam was dysregulated in public and may run away, get upset, scream, shout, swear and maybe lash out, people would look at him like he was a naughty child.

“They would stop and stare and you could feel their judgement, or other mums would ignore us or look the other way walking to and from school.

“This all changed with Willow - we started to get smiles or at the very least not stopped and judged.

People were more likely to offer support like a quiet room to wait in or give us more space and privacy.

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“Having Willow turned stressful and uncomfortable situations in public to something more positive for everyone. Instead of staring and seeing a naughty boy, people would look and see a boy being comforted by his support dog.”

Emma, who is also mum to Ellie, added that not only did having Willow aid understanding, it also took the focus off of Sam, now 13, as people would notice Willow and admire her and what she was doing.

“Willow took the burden of social stares away from Sam and absorbed it all for him,” she said.

“She would lay down with him and he would lay his head under hers and then she put her paws over him. She's very protective of him and would always lay in such a way Sam could hide from the world when it got too much.”

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They once spent an hour on Llandudno Pier with Willow laying just like that on Sam while he calmed.

“Instead of hearing people make judgemental or upsetting comments, we could hear people saying how amazing Willow was, and ‘look at that dog!’,” said Emma.

“The pressure it took off of us all as a family was amazing, it was such a relief for us all to know that Willow took away that burden of judgement, awkwardness and upset when Sam did struggle when we were out - not only for Sam but for the whole family.”

And it’s not just difficult situations that Willow helps with – she has made everywhere more accessible for Sam.

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Emma says seeing Sam enter places with Willow opens people's minds and they immediately see he might need “something different” so they will offer a quiet space to wait, turn the music down “no questions asked”, or make space for Willow or offer her a drink.

“She was also the focus for people so instead of raising Sam's anxiety by trying to talk to him they would talk to Willow or ask about Willow and this reduces that social pressure on Sam,” she added.

“Plus, he loves talking about Willow and it gives him something to connect to people.”

Emma says Willow has made Sam’s invisible disability visible, in a positive and a “wow, there’s such an amazing dog there" kind of way.

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Now people look at Sam and Willow and smile, awe-inspired by seeing them together supporting each other.

Willow even supported Sam on a holiday to Disneyland – a trip that in Sam’s younger years would have been unfathomable.

“Willow had superstar status that week,” added Emma.

Iggy is another canine hero making a real difference to how one boy makes sense of the world – and how others perceive him.

The yellow Labrador has been the lifeline of 13-year-old Louis Neylon, who is autistic and has global development delay, since he was just seven.

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Louis has limited speech and has occasional meltdowns and mum, Kelly, of Hull, says Iggy has made a world of difference in helping to make people more aware of her son’s condition.

Describing the public perception to when Louis has had meltdowns, Kelly said: “You do get the reaction that he’s a naughty child.

“When he was younger, people just thought he was a typical cute child having a tantrum, and went about their business.

“But now he’s older and he’s quite a big lad, the looks you get from people are different – people do stare as because he’s big it can look quite scary.

“You try not to let it bother you, but it does bother you.

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“Having a support dog now is so much more vital than when he was a child.”

Although Louis doesn’t have Iggy attached to him now he is older, the pooch still goes everywhere with him.

“It’s good to have Iggy out and about with his Support Dogs jacket on, just to highlight Louis’ condition. You don’t have to explain yourself to strangers,” said Kelly.

“People seem to be more understanding than if you haven’t got the dog.

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“The UK is quite a dog-loving nation, so it’s a talking point and people will be more accepting and approach Louis more.

“People will say ‘what’s your dog’s name?’ and it encourages social interaction and encourages Louis to talk to someone he wouldn’t normally talk to – it helps build up social situations autistic people struggle with.”

Support Dogs is a national charity based in Sheffield, which trains and provides assistance dogs to help autistic children and adults with epilepsy or a physical disability to live safer, more independent lives.

To find out more, please visit

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