Dogs Proven Therapeutic for Children with Autism


AnneMS Photography

As the 135th Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show wraps up in New York City, it has been difficult not to reminisce the many, many hours spent with our son watching dog show reruns on Animal Planet over the years. His affinity for animals (dogs in particular), has always been very strong and may have been partially explained by a USA Today article published this week, discussing the benefits of dogs for children with autism.

The article cited several studies proving the positive benefits of canines, including the results of research conducted  in 2010 that concluded the following:

"The study measured the salivary levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, in 42 children with autism at three different times: before and during the introduction of a service dog to their family, and after a short period during which the dog was removed from their family …  The researchers concluded ‘that the introduction of service dogs translated into reducing cortisol levels and the number of disruptive behavioral incidents in children with ASD.’"

These results come as no surprise. Animals have always been fascinating to our child. Not soon after he was diagnosed with autism, we soon found ourselves taking almost weekly visits to the local zoo, where he was captivated by the many animals on display. It was during these times, when his condition seemed to vanish for the several hours we were there. 

Over the years, his love for animals only grew stronger and eventually, he could recognize and identify even the most obscure of animals. His library soon became stocked with books on mammals, sea creatures, dinosaurs and of course, dogs. In retrospect, it was during these years when the healing had begun.

Dogs are recommended for children with autism not just for companionship, but as stated earlier, the potential therapeutic benefits as well. 

4 Paws for Ability is an Ohio-based organization that specializes in dog placements for those with disabilities and focuses heavily on those with autism. Their tagline is "providing canine miracles for people with disabilities worldwide." The group has been responsible for placing over 500 dogs around the world and offers canines for disorders ranging from seizures, deafness, mobility issues and autism.  Families in need of a service dog can apply directly online at their Web site:  http://www.4pawsforability.org .

If a child has been diagnosed with moderate-to-high function autism and a service dog is not needed, a trip to the local animal shelter may go a long way in providing immeasurable benefits. However, parents need to remember that dog ownership is a big responsibility and should not be taken lightly. In addition, a pet allergy test should be considered prior to a dog entering the home to avoid heartbreak down the road.

As Temple Grandin has proven, individuals with autism are often able to connect with animals in very deep and meaningful ways. In particular, dogs can teach a child unconditional love, responsibility, compassion and provide unparalleled companionship that can potentially change the course of their lives.

7 Responses to Dogs Proven Therapeutic for Children with Autism

  1. Hello,

    My name is Patty Dobbs Gross, and I serve as Executive Director of North Star Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides autism assistance dogs to children; we have been incorporated for a decade and have over 100 successful autism assistance dog placements with children around the country.

    I would like to offer a word of caution about the concept of “rescue a child and rescue a dog” in terms of creating an autism assistance dog placement. At North Star we believe it is an unsafe practice to partner rescue dogs with children with autism, even if they are on the high functioning end of the spectrum. At North Star we specifically breed and socialize our North Star dogs to possess a temperament conducive to working with children on the spectrum. The same qualities that make children on the spectrum sometimes difficult to gain acceptance with their peers may well come to play when working with dogs, who are apt to notice things such as not granting enough body space. When children are bitten, they are likely to be bitten in the face, so great care should be taken when forming these partnerships, both in terms of selecting an specifically socializing the right dog for the right child as well in properly educating the child served as to how he or she should communicate and handle their assistance dog.

    I’ve written a book about this field: THE GOLDEN BRIDGE: Guide to Assistance Dogs for Children Challenged by Autism or Other Developmental Disabilities (Purdue University Press, July, 2006). Please feel free to ask me any questions you may have about this emerging field that holds so much promise for children with social, emotional or educational differences.

    Kind regards,
    Patty

    Patty Dobbs Gross
    Executive Director
    North Star Foundation
    http://www.NorthStarDogs.com
    northstarfoundation@charter.net
    We help children find their way.

  2. Truly says:

    My 9 year old daughter has Autism, she is very High Functioning. We adopted a dog from a shelter when she was 5 and non verbal. She never seemed afraid of the dog however she did not pay attention to her. She did fear other dogs though, she would scream whenever we passed one while walking our dog. We were forced to find a new home for the dog after losing our home in a short sale. Our daughter is now verbal. We moved recently to a house that is located on a cul-de-sac. Our daughter noticed a small dog being walked by a neighbor and started asking for a “little” dog, that was over a month ago. We went grocery shopping the other day and she asked me if we could buy dog food, I told her we don’t have a dog and we needed cat food. She argued with me “no cat food”…. after that blurt out she went and got a box of milk bones off the shelf and put them in the cart. A light bulb went off for me, her very first ABA therapist had recently taken in a small dog that showed up on her doorstep one day, no chip, no tag, noone claimed the dog. I called her up and asked if we could “borrower” the dog, she was delighted because she had to leave town for an emergency. I went over to pick up “Vinnie”, asked her hubby how he was feeling, he said “we have too many dogs”….. Betsy interrupted and said to me “you can borrow Vinnie however I’m not ready to give him up”. This was 3 days ago, even though my daughter hasn’t held the dog, she has stopped running from him when he goes near her. Vinnie follows me around, we have taken him outside to play with the neighbors kids on the cul-de-sac. Every time I tell my daughter that Vinnie has to go back to Betsy’s house she says “No”. This morning she is asking to go to the dog park (we pass there every day on her way to school). I feel that we are making progress and she is connecting with the dog, she laughs more than ever, Vinnie stands on his back legs while begging for treats, this is hysterical to her. This is not a therapy dog, just a small dog that only barks when someone knocks on the door or when she hears us approaching the front door as she is in a crate whenever we leave. Are we onto something here?

  3. Janet Harrold says:

    I have a therapy dog and we go to a school for children with autism twice a week. Just looking for any ideas to help try to relate with the dog to the children.

  4. Kimberly Bradley says:

    I have a 6 year son with Aspberger Autism that is somewhat outgoing but everything has to be a routine even the afterschool activities like cutting up paper and making things untill he goes to bed. I thought maybe if I could find him a dog to keep him occupied my house might be a little less messy. And he could learn to be more responsible other than for his things.

  5. Pat says:

    Autism companion dogs are perfect alternatives for children with autism. Companion dogs do not work in public and are not caped. They are wonderful pets that make loving companions for children, giving them nearly infinite unconditional positive regard. These well-trained dogs can also attract the attention of other children, encouraging social interaction between the child with a disability and neighborhood kids. Your child stops being the “disabled kid” and becomes the “kid with the really cool dog.” To find a skilled companion dog, fill out an application from gifted paws..

  6. Judy Levine says:

    Hi-
    We have a rescued hound dog, she was found wandering, in labor, by a local mailman. She is a timid but very loveable and sweet dog. Unfortunately, she is left home alone much of the time with 3 teenagers and working parents. We have a neighbor whose 20 year old son has autism, he is high on the spectrum but may never drive or live alone.

    He has become the daily walker of our dog and when we are away she goes to his house and sleeps in his room. They have a wonderful relationship, he walks her all over the neighborhood and all the other dog walkers know him and stop to say hi to them. He will also stop by just to say hi to her even if its not their walking time, I’ve overheard him telling her about books he’s read and movies he’s seen, he is her person…and she is his dog!

    I know she isn’t a trained companion dog but she is most definitely his companion, they are inseparable. It is the sweetest relationship I’ve seen.

  7. saundra latham says:

    I would like more information I am currently doing research on dogs and their ability to help children with autism. I am studying psychology, and want to open a practice of family counceling for children with autism and have service dogs to help. I would like more information on this subject.
    Thank you Saundra Latham

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Did You Know?

  • * In 1970, Autism affected 1 out of 10,000 children
  • * Autism now affects 1 out of 88 children
  • * Autism affects 1 in 54 boys
  • * 1.7 million Americans have some form of autism
  • * 4 out of 5 autistic children are boys

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