Not only because he has a heart-shaped marking on his nose, which makes him extra cute, but also because he’s one of the first of his breed to be trained by as an assistance dog for a boy with autism.Two-year-old Rorschach works as a service dog for Ethan, ten. His owners, Rick and Joanne Dower, fell in love with the pup when they first spotted his markings, having planned to get a dog as just a family pet.
But after discovering the power of dogs in helping their son, Ethan, cope with autism, Rorschach is undergoing training to become a formally recognised assistance dog.Mum-of-two Joanne, a retail worker, said: ‘I’m incredibly proud of how far he has come in training because initially we didn’t think he would be an option for us. ‘Two years ago, I made plans to get my husband, Rick, a dalmatian for Christmas as a companion after he finished a 12 month post in the military.
‘I was emailing a breeder to ask if she had any pups available – she had one left but said he wasn’t very breeder-worthy because if their spots or patches form together, they’re not desirable for show dogs .
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‘She asked if a patch on his face would be an issue but I thought the more spots the better so she sent me a photo of him and that was when I noticed the spot on his nose was shaped like a heart.
‘When he was five weeks old, I planned a surprise visit for Rick to meet him.
‘We instantly fell in love with the heart shape on his nose – I knew from that picture that he was going to be a very special dog.
‘He definitely has a big heart externally but also internally as he’s now training to help Ethan.’
Ethan was diagnosed with autism at the age of four, and a year later, Joanne discovered that Assistance Dogs Australia were running workshops that showed how dogs can be a great aid to autistic children. Through this organisation, the family were quickly placed with a black Labrador named Bella – and, incredibly, within two weeks of having her, Ethan went from being non-verbal to verbal. Joanne said: ‘Bella helped with Ethan’s autism because he has sensory issues with things such as noise in shopping centres – she helps keep him calm and can tell when he’s showing signs of anxiety .
‘She will start to bump Ethan’s hands and if he doesn’t respond, then Bella will take a seat with him and put her body weight on him to bring them back into mindfulness and out of what’s going on.
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‘It’s absolutely incredible how much animals can help people with autism and the trainers are fantastic.’
Unfortunately, Bella had to have surgery on her leg two years ago and then retired as Ethan’s helper dog.
But the good news is that Rorschach is now stepping in to come to the rescue.
Joanne, from Brisbane, Australia, said: ‘The assistance dog team came in to see if they could swap Bella out for a new dog but we were happy to keep her because she’d now become part of the family.
‘But we mentioned to them that we will own a dalmatian puppy soon and they wanted to meet him to see whether he had the right temperament to become an assistance dog.
‘He ended up being perfect and began training as their first non-Labrador or golden retriever. We were all excited to watch him grow.’
Rorschach, who got his name from the inkblot test psychotherapist, reached the advanced stages of his training in December last year.
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He was training in shopping centres and a prison before the coronavirus pandemic, but will soon get back on track in the community before becoming fully qualified with public access rights.
Joanne added: ‘If lockdown didn’t happen, Rorschach probably would have completed training by now – it takes six to nine months but at the moment we’re not putting a time limit on it because we’re quite happy to see where it all goes.
‘Assistance Dogs Australia also have a PTSD programme which is amazing because my husband has just been diagnosed with it, so Rorschach will have a dual responsibility to help him and Ethan.
‘I always thought dalmatians were fire dogs so I thought Rorschach would be well-suited to Rick, being a soldier, and that he would have lots of energy.
‘But he’s completely the opposite – he thinks he’s a lap dog and is a character and a half.
‘Apparently even the prison guards have a big soft spot for him in training and give him lots of sneaky cuddles and treats.
‘I like how gentle he is – even our cat bullies him because he’s too sweet and he cares about people too much to be mean. He has such a big heart.’
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