Updated: Jul 28, 2020
For some children with autism, the right service dog can be life-changing. It is a matter of finding the right match between what the child needs and the ability of a given dog to meet those needs. In some cases, high-functioning ASD kids can do very well with a dog with the right chemistry between dog and child.
It can take a couple of years to train a dog for autism service, and it can be expensive. In some cases, shelter dogs can also be trained, and if it is the right dog, can do excellent work.
There are other cases, where even children with extensive needs can benefit, such as children who bolt and thus can't go to school. In these cases, the dog can be tethered to the child and can help prevent escape. Some dogs can anticipate "meltdowns" and can calm the child down and decrease sensory stimulus. Every child is unique in their needs, and every dog is unique in their ability to respond to those needs. This is a process of careful matchmaking in order to have the greatest chances of success.
Service dogs can also create a sense of order and routine, allowing the child to feel safer in a variety of stressful environments.
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Every dog is unique, and any breed, based on individual temperament could become the right service dog. Although it can be expensive to get a trained autism service dog, some rescues can become the perfect service dog. I have seen some Pitpulls and American Staffordshire Terriers who were excellent Autism service dogs because of their loyalty, natural protectiveness, calmness, and desire to serve.
Benefits of Service Dogs for Autistic Children
Dr. Alessandra Berry, et al, have done a review of the many studies of the benefits to children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and the use of specially trained service animals. Her conclusion is that: “Intervention strategies based on the exploitation of the emotional aspects of the human-dog relationships hold the potential to overcome the difficulty of subjects with ASD to relate and interact effectively with others, targeting core symptoms of this disorder.” In particular, interaction and connection with dogs “decreased anxiety, increased calmness, reduction in the number of emotional outbursts (tantrums), and more manageable bedtime routines.”
Among the many challenges for ASD children are the social isolation, for both child and family. Berry says, “Animals seem to possess a unique capacity to serve as an emotional bridge in specific therapeutic contexts and to act as social catalysts.” Children are more interested in going to therapy sessions if they know the dog will be there, and tend to interact with more focus and connection. For the family, having an ASD Service dog means that that child is less isolated, and the family is more able to interact with others. Having a Service Dog present allows strangers to accept an ASD child’s issues without judgment. As Berry says, “This is particularly important when considering that the impulsivity, hyperactivity, irritability, and aggressiveness of children with ASD profoundly influences parents’ everyday activities…”
One organization that trains Service Dogs, 4 Paws Ability, and also specifically ASD trained dogs, explains their purpose on their website: "The mission of our Autism Assistance Dog Program is to provide friendship, companionship, unconventional, and unconditional love for the child. (These dogs provide) a source of comfort and consistency when environments change and anxiety might be high. (We) help the children with Autism and the other family members find a higher quality of life and bring a more independent life to the child. (The dog provides) support when the child encounters problems and obstacles posed by their Autism, and they are able to overcome challenges with which they are confronted."
4Paws Ability talks about the variety of positive changes in the children’s and their families’ lives. For example, some children placed with a Service dog are able to sleep in their own bed for the first time, with the comfort of the dog. Many parents with an ASD child struggle with the fact that these children often disappear, escape, or get lost. One example on the 4Paws Ability website is the story of a mother who couldn’t go to a mall without a death grip on her child, because even just pausing to write a check would cause an escape incident. With her five-year-old child tethered to the Service Dog, the dog would sit still, and the child would remain in place.
Escapes can be very challenging as some of these children may dart and wander, and not consistently respond to their name, or know if they are facing danger. Having a specially trained service dog can keep the children from wandering or disappearing. If the child does wander the dog can help the child find their way home. On the 4Paws Ability website, they cite one case where a child in school was disappearing 15-20 times a day. Once he got his service dog, that number went to zero.
ASD Trained Service Dogs can also intervene when these children are stuck in repetitive behaviors. They can gently intervene, such as putting their head on the child’s foot, licking their hand, etc. Or they can recognize when a child is getting overstimulated and can intercept a possible "meltdown." These canine non-verbal forms of intervention and correction are often understood more readily than language.
If you are looking for an Autism Service Dog, be prepared to do your research. It may take time as many reputable training organizations have a year-long waiting list. It is a matter of matching the right dog to the needs of the child. But the right dog can change lives for the child and the family.
Genie Joseph, PhD
Director: The Human-Animal Connection