An adorable dalmatian with a heart-shaped spot on his nose is training to be an assistance dog for his owner’s young son with autism.
Two-year-old Rorschach was the first of his kind to be trained by an Australian assistance-dog charity to help out owner Joanne Dower’s 10-year-old son, Ethan. The dog was bought as a pup for Joanne's husband, Rick, 35.
The Brisbane-based family fell in love with Rorschach’s unique marking at first sight, and the spotty dog is now working his way through training to help Ethan with his disability.
The loving canine has also captured the hearts of his trainers—who coach him alongside tiny trainee labrador and golden retriever pups—and he will become a fully fledged assistance dog very soon.
“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," said Joanne, a mom of two who is a retail worker.
“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," she said.
“I was emailing a breeder to ask if she had any pups available," Joanne said, "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."
The breeder asked her if any spots on the pup's face would be an issue; however, Joanne thought a spotty pup would make a better gift.
“I thought the more spots the better," Joanne said, "so she sent me a photo of him and that was when I noticed the spot on his nose was shaped like a heart."
Joanne said that when Rorschach was just 5 weeks old, she planned a surprise visit for her husband to meet the pup.
“We instantly fell in love with the heart shape on his nose," Joanne said. "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,” she said.
Ethan was diagnosed with autism at the age of 4, and a year later, Joanne discovered that Assistance Dogs Australia was running workshops that showed how dogs can be a great aid to autistic children. She attended several sessions before deciding that an assistance dog might be really helpful for her son.
The family was quickly placed with a black labrador named Bella and, incredibly, within two weeks of having her, Ethan went from being nonverbal to verbal.
Joanne said: “Bella helped with Ethan’s autism because he has sensory issues with things such as noise in shopping centers—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.
“It’s absolutely incredible how much animals can help people with autism and the trainers are fantastic.”
But unfortunately, Bella had to have surgery on her leg two years ago and then retired as Ethan’s helper dog, which is where little Rorschach came to the rescue.
Joanne 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,” Joanne added.
“If lockdown didn’t happen, Rorschach probably would have completed training by now," Joanne said. "[I]t 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."
Joanne said that it is "amazing" that Assistance Dogs Australia also has a PTSD program as her husband had recently been diagnosed with PTSD.
"[S]o Rorschach will have a dual responsibility to help him and Ethan," she said. “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."
Joanne said that even the prison guards have a "big soft spot for him in training," and Rorschach enjoyed "lots of sneaky cuddles and treats."
“I like how gentle he is even our cat bullies him because he’s too sweet," she added, "and he cares about people too much to be mean. He has such a big heart.”