Youngster with autism Louis gains in confidence and fitness thanks to his devoted assistance dog.

Looking at Louis and Iggy snuggled up together on the sofa, they look like any other young boy and his much-loved pet dog.

But put a blue Support Dogs’ jacket on the big yellow Labrador and he’s transformed into a canine hero, a fully-trained, hard-working autism assistance dog, keeping Louis safe as soon as the pair leave the house.

Mum Kelly, who has watched her eight-year-old son blossom since Iggy came into the family’s life last year, explains: “People often ask me what they are like together. In the house Iggy is a pet dog like any other typical dog; sometimes they play together and sometimes they ignore each other. The partnership comes together when he gets his jacket and they go out.

“As soon as we put on his coat Iggy knows he is working now and Louis knows as well. They both change their behaviours when they go out. In the home he is a family pet; when they go out they are working.”

Louis was diagnosed with autism and global developmental delay five years ago. The little boy was not engaged or responding to the world around him and was very withdrawn.

Because of his delayed ability to speak he was often frustrated at his inability to communicate.

He also had very poor balance and would often fall over, so much so that he used a wheelchair when he went out – partly because of his balance and partly to stop him running off – as he also, like many youngsters with autism, had no sense of danger. He required 24-hour care as he often didn’t sleep during the night, and family life for Kelly, dad Mostyn, and elder sons William, now aged 17, and 22-year-old Joseph was tough.

During an internet search to try and find ways to help their son, his exhausted parents found Support Dogs, and were accepted onto the autism assistance programme. Kelly did the initial training at their Sheffield training centre, before Iggy and Louis were introduced.

“The training went really well and Iggy settled straight away,” says Kelly. “The Support Dogs’ trainers and instructors were absolutely brilliant. In the beginning they asked me about Louis and when they found Iggy they started training him to just for Louis and all his quirks, which we really appreciated.

“When I was doing the initial training I was taking photos of Iggy to show them to Louis and telling him what I was doing so he would be well prepared. He understands more than he can communicate and he knows that Iggy is his dog because we told him.”

One of Iggy’s benefits has been to make Louis fitter and more independent.

“Autistic children can’t play out like other children, and they lack exercise, so going for long walks and getting him out of the wheelchair means he is much more active and fitter, so that’s great from a health point of view.

“Having Iggy is an excuse to go outdoors and we go for long walks in the village. Louis doesn’t like a harness so he has a belt around his waist which is attached to Iggy. Iggy steadies him and reassures him, and Louis touches his back for reassurance.

“There also a social aspect when we are out and about as Iggy attracts a lot of attention. Members of the public come up and ask questions; not everyone knows about autism assistance dogs, and it helps Louis to be sociable. People who would not normally talk to Louis now talk to him, so he’s improved his social skills, although his speech is still very basic.”

Many children autism find it difficult to make friends and form relationships, but Louis has a small circle of friends - mainly with girls who want to mother him - according to his mum, at his small village school.

Adds Kelly:” What Louis doesn’t have are friends at home. He can’t go out and play, so at home Iggy is his best friend. He’s an undemanding friend – Louis doesn’t require Iggy to talk! You don’t get small talk from Louis.”

Louis and Iggy qualified as an autism assistance dog partnership in May, but Kelly and Mostyn have been charting the pair’s progress since their first–ever meeting the previous year through a series of touching You Tube videos, following them on trips to the beach on the Yorkshire coast near their East Yorkshire home, visits to Chatsworth Country Fair, even trips to the dentist and to local firework displays.  One of the most recent was a family visit to a Derbyshire beauty spot where Louis happily plays in the river with elder brother William, and off-duty Iggy romps and splashes with another yellow Labrador.

The youngster goes to a mainstream school which has been very supportive, and Louis has one-to-one teaching assistant. The You Tube videos have proved useful  - when pupils are asked what they did at the weekend, Louis can’t talk or write about it, but his teachers have watched the videos and know exactly what the little boy got up to.

Life for Louis and his family has improved in a way they could not have imagined before Iggy and Support Dogs came along.

“Iggy is canine royalty, everyone loves him, and rightly so; he’s had a massive impact on Louis’ and all of our lives, says mum Kelly.

“ Support Dogs are amazing in what they do – and that they help so many children like Louis. We’d do anything for Support Dogs.”