How Therapy Dogs Can Help Children with Autism

Service dogs can help children and adults with autism learn to better cope with their environment.

Just as Seeing Eye dogs make the world more navigable for the blind, specially trained service dogs are now also helping children with autism gain success and independence. These canine companions aid children through everyday social challenges and help lower kids’ overall stress levels.

“A lot of times families feel trapped in their homes,” says Karen Shirk, executive director of Paws for Ability, a service dog–training organization in Ohio. “The dogs act as an anchor for the child, giving families more freedom to go places together.

Through their comforting presence, service dogs for people with autism reduce their masters’ stress levels in a quantifiable way, according to a University of Montreal study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology. Researchers measured kids’ levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) before, during, and after they began working with a dog. When they had a dog by their side, children’s cortisol levels dropped by nearly 50 percent—a significant decrease. How much happier and more capable would all of us be with such a significant stress reduction? The results are promising.

Calming Canines: The Benefits

Each dog guides its child through his or her daily routine and acts as a bridge between the child and the rest of the world. Parents whose children participated in the University of Montreal study reported a decrease in their children’s tantrums and other disruptive behaviors, as well as improvements in their performance of daily routines and participation in casual social interactions. Such service dogs reduce kids’ stress levels and increase their daily successes in a variety of ways:

Independence: Tethered to her dog, a child can walk without always holding an adult’s hand, gaining more independence and control over her actions. “The dog acts as an anchor since they’re harnessed to the child,” says Shirk. “Even if a child wants to bolt, pulling against a seventy-pound dog gives parents plenty of time to catch up.”

Positive social interactions: The animals also help improve kids’ social skills. “It gives them a reason to communicate and something appropriate to talk about,” says Shirk. Walking around with a dog gives kids a natural chance to discuss something everyone is interested in—their canine. Organizations like Paws for Ability also note that kids become more comfortable speaking to others as they get more practice talking about their pup in a variety of situations. All this bragging often results in an increased vocabulary and decreased anxiety around social interactions, and creates a social bridge for kids who are often unsure as to how they should interact with their peers.

Calming presence: Studies show that kids who have a furry friend along for their daily routine feel less pressure than when they go through the day with other people or on their own. Kids with dogs feel less anger and experience less aggression, according to Animal-assisted Interventions for Individuals with Autism, by Merope Pavlides. This also translates to improved sleeping habits, as many kids with autism suffer from insomnia, and to a reduction in the stress associated with insomnia.

Behavior disruption: “The dog can touch or nudge a child to break processes leading to repetitive behavior,” says Shirk. “They’ll snuggle or give kisses to the child. This also helps calm them instead of letting behaviors escalate into a full-blown meltdown.” Often, this light prod is all they need to redirect themselves.

Safety: For situations in which kids can’t be tethered to their dogs, like when they’re playing on a swing set, the dogs are trained in tracking. Using their sense of smell, they’re ready and able to quickly locate a scared or stressed master in a variety of environments. The dogs are able to do this much faster than a parent can, minimizing the added stress and frustration of conducting a drawn-out search for a lost child.

The Training
Similar to Seeing Eye dogs, autism service dogs are professionally trained for most of their young lives. While such dogs are all trained in behavior disruption, tethering, and tracking, organizations often seek to meet families’ individual needs, too. After the general training period, which usually lasts from around six months to a year, families begin working with the training organization to train the canine, either in the training facility or in families’ homes, in a way that directly meets their needs.

The early part of the training process includes on- and off-leash obedience (a necessary skill for dogs to learn, as any dog owner can attest), tracking, and environmental stability training, which refers to helping a child navigate through everything from shopping malls to classrooms to outdoor parks. Once the initial training period ends, the family phase begins, during which trainers spend around a week teaching families how to communicate with and care for their new member. Dogs are pricey, running around eight to ten thousand dollars. Most facilities also provide free follow-up training for families who need it.

By Allie Firestone for Divine Caroline