If evidence were ever needed of the special relationship between man and dog, then you need look no further than teenager Murray Whooley and his goldendoodle Clive. Not only are the pair best friends, but Clive, a cross between a golden retriever and a poodle, has had nothing short of a miraculous effect on Murray’s life and that of his family. Diagnosed with autism at the age of two, Murray, like many people with the disability, had difficulty communicating and interacting with others, and the ‘outside world’ was a particularly frightening place for him.
Even a simple errand to the supermarket would result in screaming, tantrums and sometimes vomiting, if he was really upset.
But Clive has transformed his world. The curly-haired canine is adored by everyone he sees and is such an integral member of the family, he’s included in all the family snaps.
In fact, it’s not just his family who want their picture taken with Clive, who lives in Dublin with the Whooley family, he’s been snapped with popstar Ronan Keating, ex-footballer Roy Keane, Boyzone’s Keith Duffy and Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny.
‘He loves the camera and if I say ‘Clive look at me’, he sits up straight and looks directly at the lens,’ said Murray’s mother Fiona, 45.
‘He’s ridiculous that way – he’s not your average dog at all.
Clive and Murray were first introduced after his mum Fiona saw an article in a newspaper about autism assistance dogs, part of a pilot scheme being run by Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind.
A new programme, where dogs were specially trained to assist young children with autism, had worked successfully in Canada, and was being trialled in Ireland. Applicants for the scheme were needed.
Instantly, Fiona had a gut feeling that this could be the answer for Murray, as he’d always connected well with animals. As well as riding horses from the age of four, he had also taken it upon himself to adopt a stray cat. Sitting in front of the fish tank at home also helped calm him down.
Following an assessment, Clive spent the day with Murray to see how they got on.
‘Clive is a huge, bouncy dog and he came bounding in and raced straight up the stairs to Murray’s bedroom,’ said Fiona.
‘Murray found this absolutely hilarious. I just thought, ‘Uh oh, how is this big, jumpy dog going to be any help to my little boy?’ Murray was just six at the time, so Clive looked enormous next to him.
‘And, he really didn’t come across as a highly trained assistance dog. He looked very lovely, but he was so big and lively.
‘Nevertheless Murray couldn’t stop laughing. He loved him straight away and after he left he couldn’t stop talking about him.’
When it was agreed that Clive would be paired with Murray, Fiona spent a week with the dog in Cork, where the training centre is based, before he was allowed to move into the family home in Dublin.
While Clive was trained to take orders from Fiona, he was encouraged to bond with Murray. The other members of the family, including his sister Sorcha, had to give the pair space in order for this bond to develop.
And, to Fiona and her husband Colm’s relief, it was evident to see that once Clive put on his working jacket, he was a totally different dog.
‘As soon as that jacket goes on, Clive knows he’s working and all that training comes into play,’ said Fiona.
The relationship blossomed quickly and within a week, Murray was leaving the house, with a belt around his waist attached to Clive, without incident. It was a massive leap for Murray and an incredible relief for his family.
As well as giving Murray the confidence to stray out of his comfort zone, being physically attached to Clive, especially when he was younger, meant he was kept safe.
Children with autism are unable to understand the concept of danger. But there was no chance of Murray bolting across a busy road, as Clive was trained to sit down if Murray ever tried to run.
Within a short time of Clive joining the family, Murray was confident enough to go into shops, restaurants and the cinema, as long as Clive was by his side. For the first time the Whooleys could be a proper family. Something they had feared would never happen.
Now 14, Murray can even deal with crowded venues, such as Croke Park, an 82,000-seater Gaelic football stadium to see his favourite Gaelic football team the Dubs play.
This is an incredible achievement for someone with autism, as many people affected by the condition also have a heightened sense of sound, touch and smell, so crowded, noisy places can be overwhelming.
Holidays abroad are also something the whole family can look forward to. Clive has a pet passport and he is allowed to sit next to Murray on planes.
They’ve travelled to America, walked round New York, one of the world’s busiest cities, as well as visiting many other European countries.
At home, the pair spend most of their time together, apart from when Murray is at his special needs school, where Clive is not allowed.
Clive knows when he’s out in public and wearing his jacket he is working, but even when the jacket is off, if Murray is upset, anxious or scared, Clive is there to comfort him.
‘He will nuzzle him and comfort him by putting his head on his lap,’ said Fiona.
‘They want to be together and Clive will sit with Murray while he does his homework or while he watches TV.
‘Clive is incredibly emphatic and he seems to understand human emotion.
‘Our daughter Sorcha was playing football recently and scored a goal so we all jumped up to cheer and he jumped up too, he wanted to celebrate too.
‘He absolutely knows what’s going on. Other people would say that their dogs do that as well, but the dog trainers in Cork would say that they will never come across a dog like Clive ever again. He’s truly special.’
Even at night, Clive is upstairs with the family. He sleeps outside Murray’s bedroom door. Murray is his main priority, but he also wants to protect the whole family too, said Fiona.
‘But we also make sure he has time to be himself, which is so important.’
‘We walk him twice a day and a couple of times a week he spends an hour running freely with other dogs. At home he can also relax, though he spends most of his time sat with his head on Murray’s lap.
‘He’s wonderful but there have been a few occasions when he has been a bit naughty. I was cooking dinner once and when I went to answer the door, he jumped up and ate six salmon fillets that were still cooking in the pan.
‘Another time I left a leg of lamb to rest on the kitchen counter. I could have only turned my back for a minute and it was gone and so was Clive.
‘We found him under Murray’s bed eating it but he was terribly unhappy, he knew he had misbehaved.
‘He came out from under the bed with his tail between his legs and his head down.’
But how has Clive, a dog, managed to break into Murray’s autistic world, when not even his devoted and loving family could?
‘Murray can’t fully explain to us why having Clive has made him able to face our world with confidence and more independence or why he needs him so much,’ said Fiona. ‘They just understand each other. They work together as a team. Clive is like Murray’s older brother, watching out for Murray and helping him.
His dad Colm said Clive has given Murray a sense of pride and has given him something to talk about, even to people he doesn’t know very well.
‘If it weren’t for Clive, Murray would try and disappear into the background and hope no-one comes near him or talks to him,’ he said.
According to Dogs for the Disabled, an Oxford-based charity which has trained 40 assistance dogs to work alongside children with autism in the UK, the University of Lincoln is currently researching the relationship between dogs and children with autism.
There’s also a similar research project happening at University College Cork, which Clive and Murray are taking part in.
While scientists have found evidence that dog owners tend to be mentally and physically healthier than non-dog owners, nobody actually knows why.
While it is obvious that Clive has helped Murray deal with some of his problems, autism is a lifelong condition and Clive, who is only on loan to the family, is just a year or two from retirement. Assistance dogs cost £30,500 to train in Ireland.
A similar scheme in the UK, run by Dogs for the Disabled, costs around £11,000. Both here and in Ireland the dogs are only available for those under ten. Because Murray is 14 there is no plan in place for a successor assistance dog.
The family will obviously apply to keep Clive after he retires. But, only a working dog can accompany Murray to many public places which normal dogs are not allowed, such as supermarkets, restaurants, cinema and on planes.
‘We’ve only a couple of years to come up with a solution for Murray before Clive retires. Unfortunately, Murray has no real understanding that Clive will not be by his side forever, as an assistance dog or in the longer term as a friend and companion.’
Worryingly, this summer, Clive who is seven, had a health scare. Fiona noticed a lump on his back. It turned out to be a benign cyst and it was removed. But it was a shock for the entire family.
‘We automatically describe ourselves as a family of five now,’ said Fiona. ‘He’s like my third child. If anything happened to him it would be unspeakable.’
In the meantime, Clive and Murray are making the most of their time together. Clive’s pin-up good looks and the success of their pairing, has meant he has become a poster dog for assistance dogs in Ireland. The duo have helped raised thousands for the cause.
For Fiona raising the awareness of autism is just as important as raising money for the assistance dog scheme. Before Clive joined the family, life was very difficult. Other people’s lack of understanding of the condition didn’t help.
‘My parenting skills were questioned,’ said his mother Fiona, who since receiving Clive has become a director of Irish Autism Action and Irish Guide Dogs.
‘We stood in a post office queue one day and two elderly women took me to task over Murray’s screaming telling me ‘a good slap would sort him out’.’
Even when Fiona, on occasion, tried to explain that her son had special needs it wasn’t always met with compassion. ‘When Murray was three, airline staff refused to allow him onto a flight because he was screaming and vomiting.
‘We explained about his autism, how being anxious made him sick, but they wouldn’t listen, telling us he was unfit to fly. So, my husband Colm just picked Murray up in his arms, walked past the boarding staff and onto the plane.’
For the family many activities most children would love were a nightmare for Murray.
He screamed throughout his second birthday party and even a trip to the park to watch his sister play football would be so traumatic for the whole family, it was not worth the trouble.
Travel and family holidays were fraught as Murray hated flying and never wanted to leave the apartment or villa once he was there.
‘It was heartbreaking to see how afraid and upset he would become when faced with simple tasks that most children would take in their stride,’ said Fiona, who has an older daughter Sorcha, now aged 15.
There was one stressful holiday to Spain where Murray, then six, totally refused to leave the villa for the entire two weeks, Fiona and her husband Colm, 49, were at their wits end.
The following year, they went to Spain again, this time with Clive too, and Murray was like a different child. He was happy to venture out, with Clive by his side.
Their story has certainly captured the hearts of many, helped by Fiona’s blog which has attracted hundreds of American followers, and she is in the middle of writing a book about the duo.
But like any mother, Fiona is hoping that when she pens the last chapter there will be a happy ending for Murray.
To follow Fiona’s blog, click here