Assistance dog is life-changing for Bundaberg teen Summer Farrelly, who lives with autism

Thirteen-year-old Summer Farrelly lives with autism and can feel overwhelmed and exhausted when she is out of her comfort zone — but that’s changing thanks to her new dog, Onyx.

Jan 14, 2021, updated Jan 14, 2021
Summer Farrelly and her assistance dog Onyx, who she describes as a "friend and an anchor". Photo: ABC

Summer Farrelly and her assistance dog Onyx, who she describes as a "friend and an anchor". Photo: ABC

For Bundaberg teenager Summer Farrelly, the simple act of walking into a shop to buy milk can be overwhelming and exhausting.

The 13-year-old lives with autism and can feel overwhelmed when she is out of her comfort zone — but her new four-legged friend is changing her life.

Onyx, a two-year-old black labrador, helps Summer stay calm and grounded when she is struggling.

“Onyx, to start off with, is a mirror,” she said.

“Every little body communication or body signal he sends me … means something that’s quite important.

“What he does is, he can identify my emotions before I identify them, which means he can tell me how I’m feeling, so I can regulate myself better and from that information I can work out whether I need to leave or if I’m doing too much.”

Animal-assisted therapy has helped Summer manage her autism since she started working with chickens at the age of nine in a bid to better understand human behaviour and her emotions.

She developed an autism therapy program called Chickens to Love, but as she grew older felt she needed a companion animal support her when she was out in the community.

“I’m on high alert and worried about absolutely everything and anything that can happen,” Summer said.

“He’s a distraction, a thought-blocker.

“Looking into his eyes, it makes you feel not just safe, but that you have something.”

Assistance dogs are different from companion or therapy animals in that they are certified and protected under the disability discrimination act.

Once they are trained, they have public access rights to shops, cinemas and public transport.

They are used to help people living with a variety of physical or mental disabilities and symptoms.

Claire Turner, a former canine explosive detection handler who now trains assistance dogs and works with their owners, saw Summer receive three Animal Therapies Ltd awards for her chicken-assisted learning program in early 2020.

Turner thought Summer would make a perfect candidate for the assistance dog program and coordinated the placement of Onyx with Summer while mentoring her.

While it is usually more common for the parents of young people to be the handlers of the dogs, Summer’s experience with animals showed she had the insight to manage the program herself.

“We work a lot with older people, but my passion with canine assistance is to mentor the next generation,” Turner said.

“Summer and this age group is the future.

“If they are starting to find self-care through assistance dogs and they get on top of it, society will be a better place.”

Onyx does not only help Summer when she is out and about.

The dog has been trained to observe her physical and mental signals and alert her to changing behaviours — even down to making sure she goes to bed on time and puts her phone away.

“If I don’t come with him and lay on my bed he will bark — he won’t listen to anything I say because he is telling me to go to bed,” Summer said.

“When I go to bed with any sort of device, he will bark until I put the device down because he wants me to close my eyes and sleep.

“He’s a friend and he’s an anchor too.”

– ABC / Brad Marsellos

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