Children’s Inclusive Swim School ‘buddies’ Up With Therapy Dogs To Make A Splash

Swimming Buddies, a pioneering initiative for neurodiverse young people, has teamed up with a local charity to start combining therapy dogs with their swim sessions.

Lexi from Autism Dogs Northern Ireland (ADNI) stole the show at a recent away day at Harberton School for families who avail of the Swimming Buddies service.

The collaboration aims to help support those attending the lessons navigate the journey from carpark to pool, making it less stressful for the child and their family.

Swimming Buddies was the first certified Autism Swim school in Northern Ireland when it started in 2017. Since then, it’s helped thousands of young people stay safe in the water, but also provides them with a sensory outlet, and is a lifeline for families through its social activities.      

Swimming Buddies founder, Sarah Jane Reynolds, said the partnership offers a rare opportunity: “Our ‘Buddies’ view, feel and understand the world in a unique way, so our teaching process for learning to swim must be unique also. Neurodiverse Children are 160 times more likely to have a water-based incident, so safety is key. We also provide an essential haven where families can feel safe and supported.

“ADNI reached out to us to see how we could collaborate, and we held a taster session with our families. Once we saw the engagement Lexi forged with our Buddies, we wanted to develop more opportunities for our families to spend valuable time with Lexi and Gary. When Lexi was involved, we immediately noticed a wave of calm come over all the children…and adults! Witnessing our Buddies find calmness in Lexi’s presence was truly heartwarming.”

Swimming Buddies works across the country using expert-led 1-2-1 coaching with visual aids adapted to each child to help them learn to stay safe in or near water. 

Water therapy can soothe senses and assisted animal therapy is also a way to achieve a specific goal through regulating emotions.

Gary Jordan from ADNI is Lexi’s handler, he said: “We’ve a lot of experience supporting children with assistance dogs and it was fantastic to see how Lexi helped all the children and their families. Animal Assisted Therapy improves mental, physical, social and emotional functioning with the aid of animals.

“It can improve motor skills, balance and increase focus. We run several Animal Assisted Therapy programmes across the country, and we’re really excited to work with Swimming Buddies to add another dimension to our services.”

The families spent an hour walking, petting and interacting with Golden Retriever Lexi at Harberton School, which hopes to run more of these days throughout the summer months.

Laura’s son Jacob was there on the day and they said the impact on the whole family was immeasurable: “Jacob is nonverbal and has a diagnosis of SLD emotional social and behavioural problems. He has no friends and isn’t good in social settings so we were very anxious before Lexi arrived. But the whole experience was so positive.

“During the day out, Jacob actually said the word ‘dog’ and we just couldn’t believe it. Being a parent of a child with additional needs, I can see how important the work ADNI does and the comfort and happiness it brings to children and adults. We’ve even now been put on a list to get a therapy dog because the entire experience was so good and made such an impact on Jacob.” 

Scroll to Top