Client Story

Autism Dogs

  • Location: Cheshire
  • Sector: Health Care and Social Care
  • Amount: £69k
  • Purpose: Expansion and Growth
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When Caroline Preston gave presentations in her high-pressured job, she wore thick reading glasses to blur out the audience.

“Not seeing them helped me cope,” Caroline said. “I didn’t realise I was dealing with social anxiety.”

Rigid thinking gave her authority in the corporate world. “I just appeared very bossy.” But mentally, she went through extreme highs and lows, battling an eating disorder.

The challenges with her mental health led to an autism diagnosis.

Her husband Andrew worked with dogs as a trainer, behaviourist, and breeder. One of three Kennel Club Assured Instructors for Assistance Dogs in the UK, he had success working with autistic children.

In 2016, Caroline decided to use her skill-set to set up a CIC – Autism Dogs – with Andrew and their daughter, Tate, a vet.

Autism Dogs trains and matches assistance dogs to support those with autism.

“It became cathartic as well as inspiring to help in ways that I truly understood. We’ve become really successful as the only organisation accredited by the National Autistic Society, anywhere in the world.”

Autism Dogs grew to a team of 30, including family liaison teams and dog trainers.

They receive thousands of enquiries each year. However, it’s a long process. On average, it takes 12 months to train and match a dog – last year they matched 14.

“Dogs, like people, can be worriers or hotheads, so we have to assess if they’re the right fit and will be happy living the life of an Assistance Dog. Then, we do autism traits specific training. Children like to lie on the dogs’ tummies, or grab tails, so we ensure the dogs are soft mouthed and can cope with a lot of physicality.”

Key Fund gave a £53k loan and £16k grant to help expand their resources to help meet demand. It has been a ‘step change.’

“It’s a difficult organisation to be scalable quickly. Key Fund’s support enabled us to invest in more resource. We doubled our training hours and have five more members of staff, with the ability to train a minimum ten extra dogs a year, which will impact the lives of 50 to 60 people. That increase is directly related to Key Fund investment.”

The impact of Autism Dogs is transformative.

“We deal with the families that are really struggling. An autistic child can lead to a lot of chaotic, disruptive households, and it impacts on the rest of the family. Our dogs can improve sleep, social communication, willingness to go out, which assists with physical health, even eating habits. It forges relationships and reduces the extreme levels of anxiety or meltdown.”

A handler works with them to help them bond with the dog, as well as ensuring the dog can cope.

“Dogs are taught to identify the onset of meltdowns in the autistic, which can be injurious. They identify repetitive behaviours and deliver support such as deep pressure therapy (DPT) to help ground them, and reassure and sooth. The dogs will also do practical tasks like fetch shoes to encourage them to get dressed. It’s about gaining independence.”

Turnover has increased from £300k last year to forecasts of £420k this year.

“We feel more robust and ready for the next five years,” Caroline said.

“Our dogs are so compassionate, so empathic, and yet upbeat, tenacious, and sassy. Dogs are the best thing on the planet!”

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