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Dog ownership benefits and children on the autism spectrum

Dog ownership benefits families of children with autism, says a new study, "“Pet Dog Ownership Decisions for Parents of Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder,” published in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing earlier this year. Parents should consider the sensitivities of their children with autism when choosing a pet, especially matching the best type, mix, or breed of dog to the child's abilities to be compatible with the dog. Kids seem to instinctively know what qualities they would like in a dog when it comes to communication and bonding.

Dog ownership benefits and children on the autism spectrum.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Many families face the decision of whether to get a dog. For families of children with autism, the decision can be even more challenging. Now, a University of Missouri researcher has studied dog ownership decisions in families of children with autism and found, regardless of whether they owned dogs, the parents reported the benefits of dog ownership included companionship, stress relief and opportunities for their children to learn responsibility. You also may want to see another article (in PDF format), "Pet Dog Ownership In Families of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder."

“Children with autism spectrum disorders often struggle with interacting with others, which can make it difficult for them to form friendships,” said Gretchen Carlisle, according to the April 14, 2014 news release, "Dog ownership benefits families of children with autism, University of Missouri (MU) researcher finds." Carlisle is a research fellow at the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI) in the University of Missouri (MU) College of Veterinary Medicine. “Children with autism may especially benefit from interacting with dogs, which can provide unconditional, nonjudgmental love and companionship to the children.”

Carlisle interviewed 70 parents of children with autism

Nearly two-thirds of the parents in the study owned dogs, and of those parents, 94 percent reported their children with autism were bonded to their dogs. Even in families without dogs, 70 percent of parents said their children with autism liked dogs. Many dog-owning parents said they specifically chose to get dogs because of the perceived benefits to their children with autism, Carlisle said.

“Dogs can help children with autism by acting as a social lubricant,” Carlisle said, according to the news release. “For example, children with autism may find it difficult to interact with other neighborhood children. If the children with autism invite their peers to play with their dogs, then the dogs can serve as bridges that help the children with autism communicate with their peers.”

Parents of children with autism should consider their children’s sensitivities carefully when choosing a dog in order to ensure a good match between pet and child, Carlisle said, according to the news release

“Bringing a dog into any family is a big step, but for families of children with autism, getting a dog should be a decision that’s taken very seriously,” Carlisle said in the news release. “If a child with autism is sensitive to loud noises, choosing a dog that is likely to bark will not provide the best match for the child and the family. If the child has touch sensitivities, perhaps a dog with a softer coat, such as a poodle, would be better than a dog with a wiry or rough coat, such as a terrier.”

Carlisle recommends parents involve their children with autism when choosing a dog

“Many children with autism know the qualities they want in a dog,” Carlisle said, according to the news release. “If parents could involve their kids in choosing dogs for their families, it may be more likely the children will have positive experiences with the animals when they are brought home.”

Although her study only addressed dog ownership among families affected by autism, Carlisle said dogs might not be the best pet for every child with autism. “If you know one child with autism, you know one child with autism,” Carlisle said, according to the news release. “Dogs may be best for some families, although other pets such as cats, horses or rabbits might be better suited to other children with autism and their particular sensitivities and interests.”

“This research adds scientific credibility to the benefits of human-animal interaction,” said Rebecca Johnson, a professor at the MU College of Veterinary Medicine, director of ReCHAI, and the Millsap Professor of Gerontological Nursing in the MU Sinclair School of Nursing. “This research helps us understand the role of companion animals in improving the lives of children with autism and helps health professionals learn how to best guide families in choosing pets for their families.”

You also may wish to check out the nonprofit organization, "Autism Dogs for Children." Known as SDWR.org, the orgnization has developed a proprietary and unique program for training dogs to support individuals on the autism spectrum and their families. Not only can service dogs provide a calming effect for the child on the autism spectrum, there are a number of tasks the dogs can be taught.

Or see, "Autism Assistance Dog - 4 Paws For Ability." 4 Paws was the first agency in the United States to begin placing highly skilled Autism Assistance Dogs and the first agency known to place these assistance dogs with tracking skills. As long as the child’s physician approves the dog and it is safe to place a dog in the home, no family is turned away, notes the agency's website.