Dogs for Kids with Autism: Therapy, Service, and Friendship

A Working Dog’s Job

Dogs for kids with autism provide a wealth of benefits, whether used in therapy or as service dogs. Just as assistance dogs for people with physical disabilities help their owners, these working dogs help autistic children with their disabilities. Rather than serving as the legs and arms of their wards, autism dogs provide low-pressure interaction, unconditional love and affection, as well as tracking.

Autistic children often wander away, never thinking of the dangers presented by strangers, passing cars, or other threats. In school, large crowds and noises easily distract and cause anxiety for autistic children. They struggle to connect with peers, leaving many without friends or other social interactions beyond family. Professional training allows therapy and service dogs to help in each of these situations, providing social interaction, comfort, and guidance to their wards.

Therapy Dogs

Therapy dogs are used to encourage spontaneous interactions, build social skills, and provide opportunities for therapists to observe the child interacting. These dogs are available to the child during controlled therapy sessions, in-home visits, or other therapeutic environments. Generally, the child and dog do not form the same bond as they would if the dog was employed in a service capacity, since they do not live together.

Fewer restrictions apply and less training is required for therapy dogs. Generally, these animals are pets or rescue dogs whose handlers have demonstrated the dog’s good temperament and tolerance to volunteer organizations. In many cases, these dogs help autistic children learn to interact with another being, without negative responses to their quirky behaviors. The primary goal of therapy dogs for kids with autism is to build social skills and to increase the child’s awareness and interaction with the world around them.

Service Dogs

dogs for kids with autism

Service dogs for kids with autism live with their wards. These dogs receive professional training to meet the day-to-day assistance needs of the child. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA,) these dogs qualify as service dogs for the disabled. Service dogs accompany their wards anywhere, including school, as mandated by ADA. Depending on the agency in charge of placement, the dog may be placed as a puppy to bond early with the child, or as an adult to ensure a good temperament match. Parents pay for the dog or donate a sizable sum to the organization responsible for training and placing the dog.

In terms of the benefits of service dogs for autistic kids, special training means the dogs can do more for their wards. Service dogs provide the same social interactions and bonding opportunities as therapy dogs. However, these animals have a deeper involvement with the child, forming a bond that these children often cannot have with peers. Through their relationship with their dog, an autistic child can learn how to be a good friend and companion. The dog is also a source of comfort during anxious situations.

In addition to building social skills, service dogs for children with ASDs are trained to track. Wandering-prone children are attached to their service dog through harnesses and tethers. This helps prevent the child from getting lost or drawn away from parents or caregivers in public places. Likewise, service dogs can track their ward should they become separated or the child otherwise wanders away from home.

A Job for Spot, Too

It is important to understand that family pets and service dogs are not the same. While the bond between a service dog and its ward can be strong, loving, and emotionally fulfilling, the dog is a professional. Its primary goal is to assist the ward. A service dog is a considerable investment that provides many benefits. However, ultimately, the dog is a therapeutic and adaptive living tool.

The benefits of therapy and service dogs aside, family pets have a role in helping children on the spectrum too. A dog does not need a pedigree, special training, or a therapist's involvement to provide benefits to children with autism. With the right temperament and parental involvement, a scruffy mutt from the pound can make just as important an impact on the child’s social skills, emotional well-being, and sense of security as a trained professional dog. It all depends on the relationship between the dog and child, as well as the child’s abilities.

References and Resources

4 Paws for Ability https://www.4pawsforability.org/autismdogs.html

Americans with Disabilities Act, Service Dog FAQs https://www.ada.gov/qasrvc.htm

Autism Service Dogs of America https://autismservicedogsofamerica.com/about/

The Delta Society https://www.deltasociety.org/Page.aspx?pid=303

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