Autism Assistance Dogs Ireland (AADI)

Harnessing the power of the dog-human bond and canine work ethic to transform the lives of children with autism and their families.

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I confirm that I am fully aware of the eligibility criteria and terms of the Purina BetterwithPets Prize and, based on its description, I am eligible to apply:

  • Yes, I’m eligible

Should you be successful, please confirm your availability to attend:

  • Additional Skype interview(s) during the week of March 16-20th 2020
  • The Purina BetterwithPets Forum in Paris, on 3-4th of June 2020

Initiative's representative name

Carla Ankiah

Initiative's representative date of birth

21121988

Initiative's representative gender

  • Woman

Headquarters location: country

  • Ireland

Headquarters location: city

Mallow, Cork

Where are you making a difference?

Our project supports individuals throughout the Island of Ireland (Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland)

Website or social media url(s)

www.aadi.ie https://www.facebook.com/AutismAssistanceDogsIRL/ https://www.instagram.com/autismassistancedogsirl/

Date Started

April 2010

Focus Areas

  • Fostering emotional intelligence and behavioural competences
  • Promote inclusivity
  • Enhance physical activity and wellness
  • Re-imagining the role of pets in society

What is your current yearly budget for the initiative? If you are an idea stage, what early budget you would need to kick-off and run operations in your first year?

  • €250k - €500k

Organisation Type

  • nonprofit/NGO: an organisation that uses its resources to achieve a purpose outside of creating profit

1. Founding story: Share a story about the "Aha!" moment that led the founder(s) to get started or the story of how you saw the potential for this project to succeed.

In 2017 I was looking for a career change and saw AADI were seeking a fundraising and communications manager. The organisation, founded in 2010 by Nuala Geraghty, had become stuck. Demand for their service was overwhelming yet they were struggling to increase funds and grow their training operations. I met Nuala and she told me of her dream to to train enough dogs each year to better meet demand. She spoke of her vision to have a facility where the public and individuals with autism could visit, enjoy a coffee in a family & autism friendly coffee shop (all dogs welcome of course), visit the dogs in training, groom them, walk them, play with them and relax on beanbags with them. I saw potential. I saw need. I had to make it happen.

2. The problem: What problem are you helping to solve?

1 in every 65 children has autism. Autism is a lifelong neuro-developmental condition characterised by difficulties in development of social relationships and communication skills, in the presence of unusually strong narrow interests, repetitive behavior and difficulties in coping with unexpected change. Many children experience crippling anxiety and an inability to process danger. These children and their families become isolated from society.

3. Your solution: How are you planning to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.

By providing a child suffering from debilitating symptoms of autism with a highly trained, internationally accredited, autism assistance dog we can significantly improve their quality of life forever. Dogs begin training at no later than 8 weeks of age and take up to 2 years to reach the standard necessary. Families receiving the dogs also receive handler training and ongoing placement aftercare to ensure maximum benefit from the partnership for both the child and the dog. We pride ourselves in taking the time to carefully match the right dog to the right child to maximise the benefits from the ultimate bond that forms. These specialised assistance dogs are trained to keep their child companion safe. Attached via a belt to the child, these dogs listen and respond to the commands of the parent/handler. These dogs provide safety, companionship, reduce anxiety, improve communication skills, promote social inclusion and general well-being. Not every puppy entering our training program is successful in graduating as an assistance dog, however we value the power of the dog-human bond and take the time to carefully match these dogs as 'companions' to children with less severe symptoms.

4. Innovation: How are you innovating or using unique approaches to solve the problem?

Unlike similar organisations we value every dog that is introduced into our training program. Inevitably not every puppy that begins its training journey will be successful in graduating as a highly skilled assistance dog. Yet these dogs still can, and do, significantly improve the quality of life of children and adolescents with autism. We take the time to carefully assess the individuals needs and personality. Likewise we assess the needs of the dog, its personality and what environment it might thrive in. We then carefully match the dogs to a family on our companion dog wait list, as we would the assistance dogs. Companion dogs offer much the same emotional benefits as assistance dogs. They also promote independence in adolescents.

5. How does your project harness the pet-human bond to help people develop important social competencies (For example: emotional intelligence, collaboration, empathy, resilience, inclusivity) and overcome serious societal issues (for example: violence, abuse, trauma, isolation, abandonment)?

Our clients of both assistance and companion dogs have reported increased confidence in their child, reduced anxiety, as well as better communication, sleep and life skills. We believe that the careful matching of child and dog partnerships is key to promoting a strong, mutually beneficial bond. The bond that develops between the child and the assistance dog has led to happier, more resilient children particularly outside of the home. Dogs placed within the family have also increased the family's inclusion in society along with more empathy and acceptance from society. Families have reported more compassion and assistance when the child is overwhelmed and has a ‘meltdown’ with the presence of an assistance dog compared to prior to receiving the dog. Overtime as the bond strengthens between child and assistance dog, children are able to learn coping mechanisms, familiarise themselves with their local community and learn life skills that will remain with them forever. Companion dogs are often placed with children who struggle with social skills and their emotional wellbeing is vastly improved from having a non-judgmental friend.

6. Impact: how has your project made a difference so far in terms of both business outputs and social impact? How do you plan on measuring progress?

Since our establishment we have placed 37 full trained assistance dogs and over 60 companion dogs. Each of these dogs have had a huge impact on the children they have helped to support. Not only are these dogs supporting their child partner but they are also benefiting the lives of the whole family. Every autism assistance dog also helps raise autism awareness and educate their local community. We work closely with families throughout the working life of the dog placed with them. We regularly ask for feedback during our aftercare visits so we can gauge the impact of the dog is having. Over 95% of placements report 2 or more of the following benefits: reduced anxiety for whole family, improved social inclusion for whole family, report improved confidence, better communication skills, improved sleep for whole family, improved coping mechanisms and improved general wellness.

7. Growth strategies: what are your main strategies for scaling your impact?

We have successfully grown income over the last 2 yrs and are laying the foundations for this trend to continue as we scale up our project. We are also expanding our own breeding program to improve acquisition and qualification rates of assistance dogs. Currently we place assistance and companion dogs all over Ireland but our puppy training program is currently limited to the Munster area. Our next step is to expand this program by hiring a puppy trainer who will support an additional 25 puppy foster placements in Dublin. We will follow this by recruiting another assistance dog instructor.

8. Creating shared value: How does your initiative create value for different stakeholders?

By intervening with the support of an assistance dog in childhood we are improving the child and their families quality of life forever as they are able to utilise the support of the dog to learn long term coping mechanisms. It also promotes inclusion in the community and society as well as improving autism awareness across Ireland. These children are able to reach their full potential long term this means less need for adult support services, medication and respite. Our dogs are experiencing a high quality of life and care as they are highly valued. The breeds we use have an excellent work ethic and thrive as working companions. We use only positive reward based training techniques and educate our supporters on these at awareness events.

9. Financial sustainability plan: can you tell us about your plan to fund your project and how that plan will be sustainable in the short, medium, and long term?

Over the past 2 years we have successfully grown our income significantly and this growth is set to continue as we have laid the foundations for longer term, sustainable income. Evidence shows that increased awareness from growing numbers of puppies and dogs with fosterers and clients visible in society drives increased financial support. We have developed a regular giving program and more rewardable opportunities to individuals and companies to support us. Utilising an innovative digital fundraising strategy we have been able to really maximise our income from social media. Going forward we are currently re-developing our website (new site will go live around 3/3/2020). Our new website will improve user experience and supporter journeys.

10. Team: what is the current composition of your team (types of roles, qualifications, full-time vs. part-time, board members, etc.), and how do you plan to evolve the team’s composition as the project grows?

We are managed by a voluntary board of 5 directors with a variety of professional backgrounds and skills. We employ 3 full time staff: CEO who is a qualified Assistance Dog Instructor with over 20 yrs experience, Head of Fundraising and Communications who is qualified and experienced in Business Development as well as an accomplished fundraiser and our Puppy Supervisor who is a qualified dog trainer. We also employ 3 part time staff: Office Admin, Fundraising Assistant & Assistance Dog Trainer.

11. How do you plan to influence your field of work if you are a winner of this edition of the Purina BetterwithPets Prize?

By investing in strategic communications and producing visual case studies we plan to further promote the benefits of not only the highly skilled assistance dog but also companion dogs when both dog and human are carefully assessed and matched. This will encourage similar organisations across the globe to utilise all dogs that enter their training program to benefit those who may be disadvantaged in some way. These communications will also help increase financial support for our organisation from various stakeholders. We plan to further expand our breeding program to improve the quality of the puppies entering our programme and increase cost efficiency. Both these investments will support our strategic plan for growing our organisation.

12. How did you hear about this challenge?

  • Recommended by others

13. Example: Please walk us through one or two concrete examples of how your solution will solve the problem you’re trying to address.

At 8 weeks of age puppies enter our foster care programme. They stay with between 2-5 foster families until they are between 12-18 months old. Each family benefits from the support of our puppy trainer through one to one and class training teaching them modern reward based techniques. During this time puppies have public right of way access and help increase awareness as their foster families socialise and practice training in public places. Puppies commence full time intensive training with a qualified instructor for 2-5 months after which they are placed as a companion or assistance dog. Once placed, the instructor works with the family to enable them to maximise the long term benefits from the partnership. As the bond between dog and child develops, the benefits to the family increase allowing the child to develop long term coping mechanisms that result in more freedom and normality for the family. As a result, these children require less supports going into adulthood.

14. Mutual Benefit: Explain how your project mutually benefits the pets involved – how is the pet not only used as tool?

All of our dogs work for reward. We use only positive reward based training techniques. We never scold or punish puppies in training at any stage. We promote these training techniques at every opportunity in the hope of creating a better educated society and to benefit dogs outside of our organisation. We do not have or use any kennel facilities. This means puppies and dogs remain in indoors in a home and family environment throughout their whole lives. This also applies to our brood bitches who whelp their puppies in a volunteers home. This results in extremely well socialized, happy and confident dogs. Whether the puppies go on to be companion or assistance dogs we carefully match them with a suitable family and take into consideration home environment, family dynamics, lifestyle etc and match these to the dogs personality and traits. We only place dogs with families who are committed to keeping dog indoors and not leaving dog without human companionship for more than 2 hrs.

15. Marketplace: Who else is addressing this problem in your environment? How does your proposed project differ from these other approaches?

Our organisation and assistance dog programme is accredited to the highest international standards by Assistance Dogs International. We differ from other assistance dog programmes in Europe in two key areas. Firstly we do not have or use kennel facilities. We utilise volunteer foster families and home boarders to care for our puppies throughout the whole training process. This provides a better quality of life for the puppy and also means we can impact more families because there are many benefits to the families who support us by fostering or boarding. For families who, due to work commitments, cannot feasibly have their own dog can benefit from boarding a dog in full time training from us at weekends. Secondly whilst not all dogs meet the strict criteria required to be an assistance dog we aim to place ALL of our dogs with children and adolescents with autism so they can all improve the quality of life for a family struggling with autism.

16. Tell us about how collaborations and partnerships would enhance the scalability and impact of your project.

We are currently piloting a work place foster programme. We have partnered with Stryker (A multinational company) here in Ireland to engage their employees in fostering puppies in our training programme. One of their sites has already successfully fostered one puppy who went on to qualify as an assistance dog. They now have a second puppy. Another Stryker site is currently working with their first puppy and a third Stryker site is set to come on board in the next 2 months. The puppies are fostered by individuals working at the sites and brought to the site daily when the employee attends work. This employee is then supported by a number of key colleagues who work on a rota to complete training walks and toilet breaks with the puppy and support with overnight boarding. Employees of Stryker have become actively involved in fundraising since implementation of this programme. We also have a few corporate partners who support us financially including PetWorld (national pet retailer).

17. Awards & Recognitions: What awards or recognitions, if any, has the project received so far?

In 2018 we became the first assistance dog program in Ireland to receive international accreditation to Assistance Dogs International. In 2019 we were shortlisted in our category for the National Charity Impact Awards hosted by The Wheel (Ireland’s national association of community and voluntary organisations, charities and social enterprises). In 2019 one of our volunteer foster families who foster puppies and whelp our puppies won their category at the National Volunteer Awards.

18. Your Self-Elevator Pitch (OPTIONAL): Share a 1-minute video that shares a quick summary of the problem you would like to solve, how you’ve chosen to solve it, and the impact you hope to see.

I am confident AADI has the potential to grow significantly and I am committed to making this happen. I have seen first hand the benefits our dogs bring firstly to the families that foster them and then ultimately to the child and family who is matched with the dog at the end of the training. Evidence has shown that if we can communicate effectively with potential supporters, the more awareness we raise of our cause the more support we get. I ask you to consider supporting us to achieve this.

19. Financial Sustainability (OPTIONAL): Please tell us more about how you plan to fund and scale your project, include an attached document with your detailed business plan or other equivalent information. (This information will NOT be shared with your fellow contestant, it will only be visible to you and internal Prize reviewers).

When I joined the organisation in 2017 the average annual income for the organisation was €150k. In 2018 we achieved an income of €220k and in 2019 we achieved an income of €380k. This year we have a target income of €418k of which we are set to exceed based on current performance. We are confident we will be able to scale our income again next year in line with our growth strategy to achieve an income of approx €650k. This has enabled us to grow our puppy scheme from 17 puppies in training at the end of the last financial year to 27 puppies currently in training. We plan to have 40 puppies in training by the end of 2020 and 60 by the end of 2021. It takes from 18-24 months to train and place a dog from the time it enters our training programme as a puppy. Based on this we will place 10 dogs by the end of this year, 20 by the end of next year and 30 the year after. Clients are responsible for feed and veterinary costs after placement. Fundraising & Comms strategy presentation attached.

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