Service dogs are trained to help people with a wide range of developmental or behavioral conditions, including children with autism. While not every child benefits from having a dog, either as a pet or as a service animal, several studies suggest that many children with autism benefit from social and physical interactions with well-trained therapy or service animals.
A service dog is specifically trained to keep your child safe, calm in stressful situations, and out of harm’s way from wandering off. These dogs can also aid you in managing other aspects of caring for your child.
Different dog breeds are better suited to working with children with autism. Ask your child’s behavior therapist if they think your child would benefit from a service dog. You may also be able to visit with a therapy or service dog first before deciding if it is right for your family.
Beyond the Family Pet: Finding the Right Dog for Your Child With Autism
Almost all children want a pet at some point. Whether a fish, hamster, cat, or dog, children love interacting with animals, learning to take care of them, learning their habits, and treating them like members of the family.
Several psychological studies show that children learn empathy and caring when they interact with pets. The unconditional love that pets show their owners, including children, can help children feel reciprocal kindness. Pets and their owners interact in a variety of fun, playful ways, which can encourage children to get more exercise and try different modes of playing that include sharing toys or figuring out games.
Specific types of pets — service animals or therapy animals — can be very beneficial for children with special needs, including children with autism. While each child’s preferences for type of pet may be different, many young children love dogs, and dogs make wonderful service animals.
If your child is interested in dogs, you can work with some organizations to find a therapy dog that is trained to support children with autism. You can find a therapy dog with a personality that your child will fall in love with.
How to Know if a Service Dog Is a Good Choice
A study on families with support dogs for their children with autism found that the majority benefitted from their relationship with the dog. Of the families surveyed, 67% had a dog, and 94% of those reported that the child with autism bonded with the dog, playing and sharing personal space in a way that many children with autism otherwise struggle to do.
Parents reported that there were sometimes sensory issues that were triggered by the dog, and time and cost were burdens of pet ownership. However, learning companionship and responsibility were great benefits for having a dog who interacted with the child.
Other studies show that children who have pets, like dogs, from a younger age tend to have better social skills compared to their peers. This can be a benefit for children on the autism spectrum who might struggle with socializing otherwise. Studies involving therapy animals in a clinical setting show that children have short-term improvements in social behaviors after spending even a little time interacting with the animal.
While clinical studies are important indicators of how your child might benefit from a support dog, there are other considerations for you individually, such as:
- Does your child like animals generally and dogs specifically?
- Is anyone in your household allergic to animals?
- Can you spend the time and money needed to care for the dog for many years?
Service Dogs Are Trained for Specific Tasks for Children With Autism
Since many breeds of dogs are easy to train and bred to be social and gentle, there are several options for a possible service dog to support your child. Several agencies train service dogs, so you are not likely to get a dog as a puppy and train it yourself. You may still be interested in understanding or participating in this training, so you can easily work with your new pet and help your child understand how to care for the animal.
Service dogs have specific training that other types of therapy animals do not. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that many businesses and public spaces allow people with service animals to bring their animal into the location with them. The animal will perform helpful functions, like calming anxiety, guiding for walking purposes, indicating potential seizures, and other tasks. A service dog will wear a specific “cape,” which is a type of vest or harness that identifies that the animal is specially trained.
Dogs that are trained to work with children on the autism spectrum, to keep them safe by following specific commands from caregivers, alert the child or caregivers to potentially dangerous situations. They also work to support the child’s emotions and help them stay calm.
A service dog working with a child with autism may provide support at places or events like:
- Dental offices.
- Medical appointments.
- Stores or large retail locations.
- School activities or sporting events.
Breeds That Make the Best Autism Service Dogs
Over thousands of years, humans have bred dogs for a wide range of purposes, from hunting to companionship. Some dog breeds are much more social and intelligent than others, making them simple to train, gentle around children, and friendly.
Here are some of the best breeds to serve as autism service dogs for your child:
- Golden retrievers: Notorious for their friendly natures, intelligence, and soft fur, retrievers are very popular pets for children of all ages. Since this breed is intelligent and kind, they make wonderful service animals. Many agencies that specialize in autism service dogs will train golden retrievers.
- Labrador retrievers: Another intelligent and gentle breed of dog, these short-haired pups are one of the most popular breeds in the United States. They are loyal to their owners and committed to their duties once they are trained. Their calm natures make them great pets for children with autism.
- Great Pyrenees: This large breed is most famous for its fluffy coat since the dog was bred in cold northern climates. They are also known for being smart and very protective of their owners, as well as calm around their families.
- Labradoodle: A combination of Labrador retrievers and standard poodles, this trendy breed of dog combines the intelligence, calmness, and protectiveness inherent in both breeds. They are larger dogs, and they have beautiful, soft coats. They are loyal, smart, and attractive pets.
- Old English sheepdogs: This breed was designed to herd sheep, and this shepherding trait can be beneficial if your child has trouble paying attention to their surroundings and is at risk of wandering off. These dogs are intelligent, so they are easy to train. They have soft, curly coats, making them attractive pets. They are also famous for being calm under pressure, but they are playful and ready to be active.
How to Know if Your Child Would Benefit From a Service Dog
In some cases, your child may become overstimulated by a dog’s energy, have trouble with the feel of their fur or the volume of their bark, or otherwise dislike or become afraid of dogs. Service dogs are trained to manage emotional struggles in children with autism, but if your child simply does not enjoy being around even calm animals, they will not benefit from having a dog as a pet or service animal.
While having a pet or service animal may benefit your child, this is not a substitute for other types of treatment to help your child manage their emotions and learn new social skills. Working with a behavior therapist is the first and most important step in helping your child manage their symptoms.
Once you have a good behavior therapist, you can ask them about service animals, if they think a pet would help your child, and if they have access to therapy animals to see how well your child interacts with dogs. Your child’s therapist will have valuable insight into whether a service dog is a good choice for your child and which breed they might feel will work best to fit your child’s needs.
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Autism and Pets: More Evidence of Social Benefits. Autism Speaks.
How to Decide Between Autism Service Dogs & Autism Therapy Dogs. Autism Speaks.
Is There Science Behind That? Autism Service Dogs. Association for Science in Autism Treatment (ASAT).
Best Dog Breeds for Autistic Children. (November 2019). K9 of Mine.
The Life-Changing Impact of Autism Service Dogs. The Dog People.
Life With an Autism Service Dog. (February 2015). The Bark.