Unsung Heroes – Thursday

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  • Ben Whymark Lana the Dog

Today’s Action for Brain Injury Week blog post is a guest post from Claudia, a Senior Solicitor at Bolt Burdon Kemp specialising in Child Brain Injury claims.

Assistance Dogs

In support of the Child Brain Injury Trust’s campaign to raise awareness of childhood acquired brain injury, I have decided to blog about the beneficial role assistance dogs can play in improving the lives of children with brain injuries.

We have all, for many years, been familiar with the use of guide dogs for the visually impaired, but more recently dogs are being trained to assist people with a wider range of disabilities and illnesses, including post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, epilepsy, autistic spectrum disorder, risk of seizures, diabetes and of course, brain injuries in both adults and children.

What can an assistance dog do for a brain injured child?

The primary role of the assistance dog is to promote a sense of independence and confidence while helping the child master the practical tasks their disability makes difficult, or in some cases, impossible, to complete.

Children with brain injuries can experience mobility difficulties, problems with dexterity and coordination, visual impairments as well as behavioural and emotional symptoms. Because brain injuries vary widely in their severity, impact and manifestation, no one child with brain injury will present in the same way. Therefore, each dog must be trained to meet the individual needs of their owner.

Some examples of the practical help provided by assistance dogs

Assistance dogs help children who struggle with their fine motor skills to overcome difficulties with dressing and undressing and can assist with taking off socks and managing zips and buttons.

For children with gross motor and mobility problems, assistance dogs are trained to fetch dropped items when the child is unable to reach or bend and can be taught to retrieve named objects such as equipment, crutches or items of clothing. They can also be used to carry items and to open and close doors and turn lights on and off.

Most importantly, they can raise the alarm in the case of an emergency, if for instance, the child has a seizure or a fall.

Once fully trained, the dog may be integrated into the child’s physiotherapy and occupational therapy sessions. They can assist in stretching exercises and activities to improve hand-eye coordination, like throwing and catching games. This can lead to more enjoyment, participation and improved progress in the child’s therapy.

What can assistance dogs do for children with emotional/behavioural issues?

Brain injuries can be responsible, directly and indirectly, for a number of neuropsychological and behavioural problems. These can include problems with concentration, understanding and focus which can in turn cause challenging and unpredictable behaviour as well as low self esteem and confidence, loneliness and frustration.

Assistance dogs can play a key role in managing some of these issues. Of course there is the proven benefit of the calming companionship of a dog, but more specifically, they can help counter ‘bolting’ behaviour, and encourage development of a sense of danger and road safety. They can be taught to interrupt repetitive behaviour and act as a reassuring constant should the child find unforeseen scenarios and unfamiliar environments difficult to cope with.

“The dog is man’s best friend”

Whilst the practical and emotional support provided by assistance dogs is wide ranging and cannot be overemphasised, it is also important to reflect on the special bond that develops between the child and their dog.

The Ogden Nash quote may seem tired, but in the context of assistance dogs and the valuable work they do, it seems to me to be a cliché worth repeating.

Eighteen months ago the Child Brain Injury Trust, in collaboration with Dogs for the Disabled, ran a pilot programme using a trained dog to help a young boy called Ben who had a brain injury cope with a number of day to day situations he found difficult. This included developing his awareness of traffic, encouraging him to walk safely on the pavement and to exercise caution when crossing the road. In addition to these practical benefits the dog became his friend and companion. The dog, quite tellingly, was selected by this boy as his ‘unsung hero’ in line with the theme for this year’s Action for Brain Injury Week campaign (see photo above of Ben’s painting).

Ben’s story falls into line with so many of the experiences referenced by the various organisations providing assistance dogs. Those who train the dogs and the families who have witnessed the work they do confirm that the child and their dog become a team. In tandem with their dog the child can exceed expectations and independently strive to overcome some of the daily challenges they face. As the child moves towards adulthood this increased sense of autonomy, confidence and control is invaluable from both a practical and emotional wellbeing point of view.

At Bolt Burdon Kemp, our specialist Child Brain Injury team is dedicated to providing an innovative service which adapts and evolves to meet the unique and wide ranging needs of our clients.

We have discussed the benefits of assistance dogs with a number of our clients, and, when appropriate, we will take active steps to ensure adequate consideration is given to incorporating this beneficial service into our clients’ care and therapy packages.

I am a Senior Solicitor at Bolt Burdon Kemp specialising in Child Brain Injury claims. If you would like advice about making a claim for compensation for your child, please contact me free of charge and in confidence on 020 7288 4843 or at claudiahillemand@boltburdonkemp.co.uk.