Autism Service Dogs: Soothing Melt-downs
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.
How a Service Dog can help
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:
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.
Children 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, so even when a parent cannot directly touch the child, the child can still feel a soothing touch from the dog.
The reassuring presence of a dog that genuinely cares for the child can be a powerful calming mechanism. The child is never alone.*
What happens if, during a melt-down, my child hits or thrashes out at the dog?
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.
Acclimatizing service dog in training to the (simulated) sounds of a melt-down.