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Service Dogs and Autism

Autism Service Dogs
Autism Service DogsPMarkman / Flickr

The following is re-printed with the Compliments of Autism Asperger’s Digest March/April 2011 issue

"Autism & Asperger’s: The Way I See It,” by Temple Grandin, Ph.D., is an exclusive column in every issue of Autism Asperger’s Digest. This article appears in the March/April 2011 issue and is reprinted by permission of the editor."

As I travel around the country and talk with parents of individuals with ASD, more of them are asking whether they should get a service dog for their child with autism. The use of service, or assistance, dogs with spectrum children is gaining popularity. However, this is a complicated issue. Unlike other autism interventions that can be more easily started and stopped, embarking on the journey to find an appropriate service dog for a child is a long-term commitment on the part of the entire family. A service dog is much more than a well-trained pet.

The first question I ask is, “Does your child like dogs?” If the family does not already own a dog, I suggest they see how their child will react to a friend’s friendly dog first. There are three kinds of reactions the child can have. The first is an almost magical connection with dogs. The child and the dog are best buddies. They love being together. The second type of reaction is a child who may be initially hesitant but gets to really like dogs. The child should be carefully introduced to a calm, friendly dog. The third type of reaction is avoidance or fear. Often the child who avoids dogs has a sensory issue. For instance, a child with sensitive hearing may be afraid of the dog’s bark because it hurts his ears.

When I was a small child, the sound of the school bell hurt my ears like a dentist drill hitting a nerve. To a child with severe sound sensitivity, a dog may be perceived as a dangerous unpredictable thing that can make a hurtful sound at any moment. For some individuals, the smell of a dog may be overpowering, although keeping the dog clean may alleviate this issue.

I also ask parents if they are willing and able to make the time, financial, and emotional commitment of having a service dog. This is a family affair, with everyone in the family involved. Waiting lists can be two years or more, and fees for the trained dog can run $10,000 or more initially, and several thousand dollars each year thereafter.

Types of Service Dogs

There are three basic types of service dogs that are most likely to be used with individuals with autism. They are therapy dogs, a companion dog, or a safety dog. A therapy dog is owned by a teacher or therapist and is used during lessons to facilitate learning. A companion dog lives with the family and spends most of its day interacting with the individual with autism. The dog can assist with social, emotional, behavioral and sensory challenges in the child. These dogs also serve as a “social ice breaker” because other people are often attracted to a dog and will interact more readily with the child. Some individuals with autism really open up and interact with a dog. Therapy dogs and companion service dogs must have basic obedience training plus training for public access. Companion dogs usually receive additional training that focuses specifically on the needs of the child for whom it has been matched. For more information on training standards, visit the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners’ website, iaadp.org.

The third type of service dog is the safety dog. These are highly trained dogs used with individuals with severe autism who tend to run off. The child is tethered to the dog and the dog becomes a protector of sorts for the child. Safety dogs have to be used carefully to avoid stressing the dog. These animals need time off to play and just be a dog. A dog’s mind has categories of behavior. He is trained that when the service dog vest is on, he is working. When he is not working, the vest is taken off.

Dogs that are chosen to be assistance/service dogs should be calm, friendly, and show absolutely no signs of aggression toward strange people. They have to be trained for good manners in public such as not jumping on or sniffing people, and not barking. This level of basic training is the absolute minimum any therapy or companion service dogs should obtain; advanced training to become familiar with the behaviors of people with ASD is preferable. (See companion article online at autismdigest.com, “Questions to Ask When Selecting a Service Dog Provider.”)
There are many different groups who train companion and service dogs. One of the best ways to find a respectable source is through referrals from satisfied people who have service dogs.

Further Reading

  • Arsenault, V.P. (2010). Effects of service dogs on salivary cortisol secretion in autistic children, Psychoneuroendrocrinology, 35:1187-1193.
  • Burrows, K.E., Adams, C.L. and Millman, S.T. (2008). Factors affecting behavior and welfare of service dogs for children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 11:42-62.
  • Burrows, K.E., Adams, C.L. and Spiers, J. (2008). Sentinels of safety: Service dogs ensure safety and enhance freedom and well being for families of autistic children. Quality Health Research, 18:1642-1649.
  • Grandin, T. (2011). The roles animals can play with individuals with autism. In: Peggy McCardle et al. (editors) Animals in our Lives, Brooks Publishing, Baltimore, MD.
  • Gross, P.D. (2005). The Golden Bridge: A guide to assistance dogs for children challenged by autism and other developmental disorders. Purdue University Press, West Lafayette, Indiana.
  • Pavlides, M. (2008). Animal Assisted Interactions, Jessica Kingsley, London, UK.


Find More Information:

Autism Service Dogs of America

4 Paws 4 Ability

Wilderwood Service Dogs for Autism

Assistance Dogs for Autism

Northstar Foundation/Service Dogs for Autism

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