Autism Service Dogs
How these special dogs can be used to help children learn how other people feel.
- Recognizing emotions: Since children with autism often have trouble recognizing emotions on human faces, and often they have a difficult time learning to read and understand people’s emotions. A dog's play-bows, wagging tail, and thirsty panting are big clues that are simpler and easier to recognize than the subtleties of human behavior. Thus, mastering the dog’s simple visual methods of communication can facilitate learning of more complex cues in the future.
Communication through body language: Both children with autism and dogs (in general) are highly attuned to body language. Although dogs can learn to respond to verbal cues, they are much more responsive to hand signals; this is highly advantageous for both non-verbal children with autism as well as children who have not yet learned to speak, as it provides an opportunity for direct, non-verbal communication. Children with autism, many of whom are non-verbal, often create their own hand signs for training, to which the service dogs learn to respond. These new cues the child has invented can lead to more interactions that are unique to that particular child-dog relationship and result in not just a positive experience with the service dog, but improved self-esteem for the child as he or she trains the dog to learn new cues.
- Nurturing: Children with autism are often more empathetic and sensitive than we might think as evidenced by the nurturing behavior often observed toward a service dog. A child who will not want to be touched by people may be quite comforted by the furry touch of their service dog. A child who frequently displays anger or aggression to other people can become quite gentle with the dog. By encouraging these types of interactions with their service dog, the child can eventually be taught to use these positive behaviors when interacting with other people.
Communication is difficult for anyone, but especially for a person with autism—and a well-trained Dog can serve as a “social bridge." A recent study included a control condition in which participants (children with ASD) were evaluated either in the presence of animals or a selection of toys (which have also been shown to promote interactions among children with ASD), without therapeutic intervention in order to evaluate the influence of animals independently of targeted intervention. The results showed that participants with Autism Spectrum Disorders demonstrated more social approach behaviors (including talking, looking at faces, and making tactile contact) in the presence of animals (in this case, two guinea pigs). Moreover, children with ASD received more social approaches from their typically developed peers in the presence of animals as compared to toys. Children with ASD also displayed more pro-social behaviors and positive affect (i.e., smiling and laughing) as well as less self-focused behaviors and negative affect (i.e., frowning, crying, and whining).
Social bridge.A well-trained dog is a kid magnet. By interacting with other children who want to pet the dog and talk about the dog, an autistic child with a service dog can get significantly more incidental, positive social interactions. In this case, the service dog acts as a bridge to social interactions which can lead to improved social skills because attention from peers and adults alike to the dog requires responses from the child. Because the dog provides something to talk about and interact with, children with ASD are less likely to be ignored or shunned by those who might otherwise feel uncomfortable talking with the child. Sometimes, other children need a little extra encouragement to play with a child who has ASD. When other children might otherwise hesitate or feel awkward around a child with ASD, service dogs facilitate natural, fluid interactions that can lead to a better understanding of who the child with ASD is as an individual. A child with a service dog can be perceived as much more approachable, and the dog serves as a tool to initiate interaction - the child doesn't have to just rely on parents or aides to ask them questions. Because kids and adults alike are more willing to approach a child with ASD who has a service dog, other people initiate more conversations than they might otherwise with the child directly. Many children with autism don't start conversations themselves, but they can be encouraged to respond if they are approached directly. Service dogs increase this type of interaction, and consequently, the child with ASD receives more verbal stimulation. Many people are interested not only in animals or dogs, but are especially curious about service dogs. Because service dogs are interesting, their presence can serve as an ice-breaker; there is always something to talk about!
Reduction of loneliness encourages more social interaction.While some children with autism don't mind being friendless, others are bothered quite a bit if they experience such isolation. A child who feels rejected or shunned can experience intense loneliness, which, unfortunately, can result in withdrawal. Depression and anxiety are especially common in children with used to be called Asperger Syndrome (High Functioning Autism). Withdrawal from society prevents the exact sort of interactions that can typically help alleviate such feelings. A vicious cycle then occurs, where the very thing that can help a child is the thing the child doesn't want to do. When a child has a service dog, however, they often don't feel as alone in the world, because they have a furry friend who loves them unconditionally. When the child feels less alone, they are more likely to want to go outside into the world and interact with people. These interactions lead to more skills, eventually more friends, and the cycle then becomes a positive one, with one of the great benefits of a service dog being the creation of more possibilities for relationships.
Standard questions and responses can be used to facilitate sociability.Since often people ask the same questions to a child with a service dog, the child can be taught stock answers that they can use repeatedly. This regularity of questioning makes things easier for the child because they know how to answer the questions appropriately. Repeated interactions can help a child develop linguistic skills, as they eventually learn how to elaborate on stock answers. In this way, when strangers, neighbors, and schoolmates initiate conversations with the child about his or her service dog, they are incidentally helping the child develop more advanced linguistic skills through what may seem like mundane interactions.
Extra socialization for the family, as well.People encountering families with service dogs were also friendlier, and the families were less inclined to avoid interactions for fear that the autistic child would have a tantrum."
 Social Behaviors Increase in Children with Autism. O'Haire ME, McKenzie SJ, Beck AM, Slaughter V (2013), PLoS ONE 8(2): e57010. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0057010 "Sentinels of Safety: Service Dogs Ensure Safety and Enhance Freedom and Well-Being for Families With Autistic Children", Kristen E. Burrows, Cindy L. Adams, Jude Spiers, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, 2008
3. Soothing Meltdowns
The parents can encourage the child to learn to "self-soothe" using their Service Dog. As many people living with children with ASD know, meltdowns are much more extreme than mere tantrums and often lead to the children lashing out physically. A meltdown is best defined as a total loss of behavioral control, and a child in the middle of a melt-down desperately needs help to regain control. Meltdowns arise, in part, from an inability for a child to soothe themselves. Although there may be times when the child cannot be soothed by a parent, teacher, or a caretaker, a service dog can often help prevent a tantrum from escalating to a meltdown. Even in cases when the service dog cannot prevent a meltdown, the service dogs often help soothe the child afterward. This process occurs in several ways:
Tool: ‘Lap”When a child starts crying, the parent can tell the dog to place its head in the child's lap (a task the dog has been specifically trained to do for the child). The parent can then encourage the child to stroke the dog's fur and let themselves be calmed by the furry warmth and pressure of the dog. Temple Grandin often speaks of how pressure was always helpful in soothing herself, especially as a child, and the dog's heaviness can bring down a child's emotions, heartbeat, and blood pressure. In this way, the tantrum is not only soothed, but the child can learn to calm themselves through their Service Dog, even without a parent's help.
A key to using touch to help the childChildren with autism are usually very tactile, and while they often dislike the touch of other people and many don't want a hug, they often do like touching an animal. Thus, even when a parent cannot directly touch the child, the child can still feel a soothing touch from the dog.
Unlocking free-time: Using the dog’s calming presenceParents often feel overworked because the child with autism demands so much of their attention. The reassuring presence of a dog that genuinely cares for the child, however, can be a powerful calming mechanism. The child is never alone, even when the parent’s attention is elsewhere.
4. Educational Tool
An Autism Service Dog can be used by the teacher, used as a teaching tool, or even the dog can be a teacher. A Service Dog can be used as an educational tool for children with autism in three ways:
The dog as teacher
Parents often feel overworked because the child with autism demands so much of their attention. The reassuring presence of a dog that genuinely cares for the child, however, can be a powerful calming mechanism. The child is never alone, even when the parent’s attention is elsewhere. Children along the spectrum often have difficulty pulling their attention away from inanimate objects, and parents can often have difficulty with the slow, patient, coaxing that is needed. A Service Dog, however, is bonded to the child and over and over again, gently pulls the child's attention away from inanimate objects. A trained Service Dog, with its ability to sense social cues, is a sensitive teacher, and a child with autism finds the dog difficult to ignore and thus is then brought out of their "mindblindness".
Interruptions. Instead of a parent pointedly interrupting a child's obsession with the inanimate world (in order to teach the child about the random nature of the world), a Service Dog's interesting interruptions serve the same purpose, and with a natural good nature that is always unforced.
Experiencing forgiveness. The Service Dog's natural capacity to forgive the child's mistakes also serves as a model for the child.
Becoming part of a group. Children with autism often have difficulty with the concept of being in a group, but as a dog-child team, the child can learn that they are part of their own group, with its own membership rules.
- Teaching forgiveness (a two-way street). Dogs are much simpler than people, and when a dog needs forgiveness, the actions and reactions are simpler to understand. The child with autism learns to forgive the dog its simple mistakes.
- Interruptions. Instead of a parent pointedly interrupting a child's obsession with the inanimate world (in order to teach the child about the random nature of the world), a Service Dog's interesting interruptions serve the same purpose, and with a natural good nature that is always unforced.
Even if the child doesn’t understand the long-term benefits of a medical procedure (or the inconveniences of travel), the comfort of the dog, who is allowed into places like hospitals, is invaluable.
Physical therapy: Physical therapy, for instance, is difficult, but not only can the dog be a reward at the end of a session, the Service Dog can also be actively involved in the physical therapy, used as a reward when the child completes sets of tasks.
Waiting rooms: The medical trajectory of a child who is unable to make many appointments (because of the extra step of waiting in the waiting room) can be changed from downwards to upwards when the child can finally get to all of their appointments (accompanied by their Service Dog).
Procedures: Whether through distraction or comfort, the parent can use the dog as a tool to help the child through difficult procedures.
Travel: Trips that would have been impossible before having a Service Dog are different because the Service Dog can come along.
Helping parents with a tool for bolting/eloping/wandering.
Gentle Assistance with Self-Control
For a parent of a child with autism who tends to bolt (or wander or elope), belt leashes serve a special purpose. Many children with autism don’t want to hold their parents’ hands, which is dangerous because the child can easily run into traffic. But with a Service Dog, the parent can attach a regular leash to the dog’s nose collar, and the child can wear an anchoring belt leash with a clip attached to the dog’s vest. Thus, the adult controls the dog with the regular leash, while the child is tethered to the dog’s vest (and thus the child has to stay close to the dog). This leashing combination is an effective technique that keeps the child from bolting, and the setup pleases the child because they enjoy being near the dog. This way of working also gets the child into the habit of staying near their parent, with the goal of eventually doing so without being tethered to the dog.
6. Extra Benefits
When Service Dogs learn to help on their own, even more benefits (may) emerge. While an Autism Service Dog has certain skills and is trained with specific tasks especially for an individual child with autism, other benefits often come up later on. These behaviors are not guaranteed, but they are so common (and striking), that they're worth talking about.
Sleeping TogetherMany children with autism have night terrors, but with a furry companion, they often sleep much better and do not have to sleep with their parents.
Anticipating Meltdowns (can't be taught, but may learn on its own)Autism Service Dog may start noticing that a child's tantrum is about to occur (even before the parent notices), and then short-circuit this build-up by distracting the child. Again, this task cannot be taught, but the more often dog does it and receives positive reactions from the child, the more often the dog will do so.
What happens if, during a melt-down, my child hits or thrashes out at the dog?
Good question! According to a recent study: "Some of the more aggressive children would hit or thrash out at the dog, startling the dog and causing the dog to move away from the source of physical abuse. Fortunately, the dogs developed a learned sense of when to move into distract or comfort the child and when to move away to avoid the child's anger.""
 "Factors Affecting Behavior and Welfare of Service Dogs for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder", Kristen E. Burrows, Cindy L. Adams, Suzanne T. Millman. Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, 2008.
What are the Studies About How Getting an Autism Service Dog Helps?
- “Highly significant increase in pro-social behavior with a parallel decrease in self-absorption."
- "Fewer autistic behaviors (e.g., hand-posturing, humming and clicking noises, spinning objects, repetitive jumping, roaming)."
- "More socially appropriate ones (e.g., joining the therapist in simple games, initiating activities by giving the therapist balloons to blow up, balls to throw, reaching up for hugs, and frequently imitating the therapist's actions).”
- Interestingly, at post-treatment and follow-up meetings when there was no service dog present, the children performed better than before the treatment, but this improvement in behavior declined as the time since the children’s interaction with the dog increased.
- "Were more focused."
- "Were more aware of their social environments.”
- "Exhibited a more playful mood."
- "Trained service dogs assist and also add pride, self-reliance, and personal satisfaction to an individual's daily life."
- "Our findings showed that the dogs had a clear impact on the children's stress hormone levels," says Sonia Lupien, senior researcher and a professor at the Université de Montréal Department of Psychiatry and Director of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress at Louis-H. Lafontaine Hospital. She continued, "I have not seen such a dramatic effect before."
- Cortisol Awakening Response (CAR) levels before service dog: 58% increase.
- Cortisol Awakening Response with the service dog: A mere 10% increase.
- After service dog (when the dogs were taken away after four weeks): back up to a 48% increase every morning as the child awoke from sleep.
- "The dogs also improved the children's behavior, reducing the number of problems reported by parents."
- The authors proposed a number of hypotheses that could explain the changes in the Cortisol Awakening Response with the service dogs, including positive psychological factors associated with the presence of the service dog (e.g. calmer, happier children), or changes in the children’s sleep patterns (some parents reported improved sleep habits when the service dogs were in the home), or perhaps the presence of the service dogs created an anchoring effect that made testing cortisol levels easier on the children.
- In summary, the article offers some of the first evidence that service dogs can benefit children with ASD by mitigating the physiological effects (Cortisol Awakening Response) commonly observed in the children and potentially lead to improved psychological states for adults and caretakers.
September 2010 issue of the journal "Psychoneuroendocrinology", Université de Montreal, MIRA Foundation, Quebec, Canada. Redefer, L. A., & Goodman, J. F. (1989), Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 19(3), 461-467. Animal-assisted Therapy for Children with Pervasive Developmental Disorders, Martin, F., & Farnum, J. (2002). Western Journal of Nursing Research, 24(6), 657-670, College for Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University. Observations on Assistance Dog Training and Use, Coppinger R, Coppinger L, Skillings E., Hampshire College, Amherst, MA.
Will my child with autism bond with a Service Dog?
- In general, yes, but not in the same way people without autism do. Since children along the autism spectrum have difficulty showing emotion, sometimes we can't see the bonding directly and we only see the bonding by the reduction of the child's symptoms. As Temple Grandin says, "When you take a drug to treat high blood pressure or diabetes, you have an objective test to measure blood pressure and the amount of sugar in the blood. It is straight-forward. With autism, you are looking for changes in behavior."
- While with some families, it was obvious that the child bonded to the dog right away, but with other families, it took up to two years before it was readily apparent that the child loved the dog and identified that the dog was "theirs" (looking the dog in the eyes, interacting directly with the dog. Here's a good story, though, where we got to glimpse an insight into the boy's world (even though he rarely spoke). When we were training the dog, we visited the boy in the hospital because he was having a 24-hour EEG. We saw the boy playing with blocks next to the dog, but not facing the dog. Even though the boy rarely spoke, we heard him singing, "I love you, Bailey, I love you, Bailey." If we hadn't happened heard him singing, we would not have known what he was thinking, but to the boy, he was "with" the dog by playing next to him, (and to a dog, just being with the boy, even though they were just facing in same direction, meant that they were together). This boy didn't directly interact with the dog for two years (at which point, he was looking the dog in the eyes and speaking of him as "my dog"), but we knew from this glimpse that he always loved the dog. Usually, of course, we don't get this glimpse into the private world of a low-functioning child with autism, but in this case, we got lucky (and it can be a good example of how we dont know, sometimes for a long time, what the child is thinking). Again, while we might get a glimpse into the child's world, the best measurement of many children with autism is often their behavior, rather than their words.
- In most non-Pawsitivity families, the dog bonds most strongly with the other members of the family, not the child with autism. Yet even those (non-Pawsitivity) families report that there is a significant improvement in the child's quality of life measurements because the child is behaving better, both when the child is interacting with the dog and when the dog is simply around the child. Note that the dogs we have trained have a great track record of bonding with their child because we encourage a protocol of "All good things come from the handler" (the child should be the one who interacts with the dog, not the parents).
- Pawsitivity families report that the dog is a benefit to rest of the family, too, by alleviating some of the stress that comes with caring for a child with autism.
Is a Service Dog the right choice for my child with autism?
- “First of all, all kids with autism are all different from each other. There is no one solution, and there is no cure-all. For instance, some children are afraid of dogs. Other children have a sensory processing disorder so barking hurts their ears and they're afraid of dogs. But a trained autism service dog can be very helpful for the right child. Again, it's not a one-all solution. The dog has to be specially selected and specially trained, but yes, an autism service dog can be really helpful for a child with autism. "
Are There Any Tools to Help Decision Making?