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Can Dogs Help Someone with Autism?

Behavior Education Services, provider of ABA services

Can Dogs Help Someone with Autism?


Dogs can help with a variety of illnesses, anxiety disorders, depression, and now dogs are believed to help with children who have autism as well. Having a pet in the house can provide much-needed companionship and love that children with autism need.  However, it is important to keep in mind that all children who suffer from autism are different, and having a dog in the house may be a trigger for some of them. If you determine with your doctor that a dog may provide relief of certain symptoms associated with your child’s autism, your child may just gain a lifelong friend and the strongest bond he/she will develop over their lifetime.

Signs of a Dog Helping with Autism
Instead of discussing what signs to look for when a dog is helping a child with autism, we are going to look at how you can tell if a child is responding well to a dog. We will also take a look at how dogs help with different aspects of autism that are particularly challenging for children. Firstly, any type of dog helps the child with acceptance. Children who suffer from autism often feel alienated, alone, and different from their peers. A dog can help provide acceptance and companionship into the child’s life, providing them with acceptance and love they may not regularly receive from others.  Dogs will also help the child with social interactions, which is often one of the most challenging areas for a child with autism. The friendship and interaction with a dog can provide the child with a special bond and confidence that will help them cultivate stronger relationships with people.  Service, therapy, and family dogs will attract people to the dog and owner/child when they are out. A dog specifically used for a child with autism is actually encouraged to interact with people while they are out. People coming over to the autistic child and dog will interact with the autistic child as well, providing healthy interaction with people, hence helping socialization.

History of Dogs Helping with Autism

In the United States, service and therapy dogs were first introduced to the public in 1929. These dogs were trained to help the blind navigate through the world. However, assistance dogs were not widely introduced to the public for multiple services until the 1960s. This when dogs were believed to have the ability to help enhance the lives of people with disabilities in a more widespread way. This eventually led to the use of both therapy and service dogs in helping children and adults to cope with autism. Depending on the type and severity of autism a child suffers from, either a service dog or a therapy dog may be used.  Considering more recent research and studies, there have been numerous findings on the ability of dogs to help with autism. For a long time, research suggested only specifically trained service and therapy dogs could help children who have autism. Most studies only focused on the benefits and effects of how service and therapy dogs help these children with autism, why they helped, and how great the effects of these dogs were on the child’s life.  However, as time has passed, more focus has been placed on how regular, pet dogs can help children with autism. In fact, studies have shown that family dogs don’t just help the child with autism, but they also help the whole family unit by de-stressing families living with an autistic child.

Science Behind Dogs Helping with Autism

A study that was conducted by the Journal of Pediatric Nursing surveyed families of children who have autism. They were asked questions about how their autistic children interacted with the family dog – approximately two-thirds of the families owned a family dog. They found that 94% of those families said their child bonded very strongly with the family dog. Furthermore, the families who did not have dogs in the house stated that their child interacted well with other families dogs when given the opportunity (7 out of 10 families).  Older studies on this subject have also found that families of autistic children, who had dogs in the house as they were growing up, had better social skills than kids who did not grow up with a dog or other pet. Additionally, other studies have concluded that kids who interacted with a dog for only a short period of time showed improved social behavior temporarily after playing with an animal. One of the reasons why children with autism respond do well to animals, especially dogs, is because a dog can provide unconditional and non-judgemental love and companionship.

Training Dogs to Help Children with Autism

For the sake of this article, we will take a look at how a service dog is trained for a child with autism. If you are considering getting your family a pet dog to help a child in your family with autism, there are generally no special training requirements for the dog, since it is more of a companion for the family and child, compared to a service or therapy dog.  The first step in the process is for the dog and owner to travel to Oregon where they will both spend 5 days training at the ASDA Headquarters. This will teach the primary caregiver all they need to know about the dog that was selected to be with the family. In the evenings, the dog will go home with the caregiver so they both can begin to establish a relationship. The goal of this initial trip is so the main caregiver to gain their ADS, which certifies them as a service dog handler.  The next phase is to take the service dog home to their place of residence. It takes around 1-2 weeks for the service dog to become adjusted and comfortable in their new home. During this 2 week period, the main caregiver will continue with the training and skills they learned while in Oregon.  The third phase is a visit from the trainer, who will help continue training with the god for one week. During this time, the specific needs of the autistic child are addressed so the dog can receive more personalized training. The trainer, child, and family will take the dog to places the family is likely to go to on a regular basis like school, the supermarket, the doctor’s office, parks, and other common areas. Three full days of this phase will be spent at the child’s school and further training will take place in a school environment.



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