Question: Can a dog help with my child with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder)?
Answer: It depends on your expectations.
- Helps form social relationships with other children via the dog.
- Motor control & skill building by interacting with the dog -- walking, petting, grooming, throwing balls, feeding the dog.
- Can alert the parent if the child is engaging in a behavior that is of concern to the parent.
- Bedtime -- Sleeping with the child provides warmth & pressure that can calm the child.
- Shifts the focus from the autism to the dog, both within the family and in the community --communicates to strangers that the child has special needs; fosters support and acceptance of the child and family; allows siblings to talk about the dog rather than the autism behaviors.
- Alleviates anxiety and arousal during stressful situations by bringing the child's focus onto the dog; can get the child to focus on daily activities (dressing, eating, etc.) by having the dog participate.
- Household pets exert a positive influence that decreases family stress in general, and provides opportunities for positive family interaction (walking, playing with the dog).
- Becomes a non-judgmental and comforting companion for the parent.
- If the parent has the time and willingness, the dog can be taught some advanced behaviors, like tethering the child while the family is shopping.
- You must have realistic expectations of what a dog can and cannot do. Read What Every Caregiver Needs to Know About Service Dogs to understand the limitations of using a dog as a subsitute caretaker.
- The parent must be the primary handler, trainer, and caretaker of the dog. Having a dog is like having another child -- it needs care, education, potty breaks, and naps. Dogs get sick, sleepy, and hungry. They need regular playtime and regular grooming. They need veterinary care.
- The training must be maintained -- learned behaviors must be reinforced on a regular basis or the dog will forget. Even if you receive a "pre-trained" dog, you must consistently and correctly reinforce the behaviors you want or the dog will stop performing those behaviors.
What Kind of Dog?
- Loves people, especially children;
- Confident, friendly, & outgoing;
- Responsive to people and eager to please;
- Loves to be petted, touched, handled, and is tolerant of clumsy or boisterous handling.
Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers are the breeds that most dependably have these characteristics, and are the breeds most commonly used as service dogs.
We strongly recommend you do not choose herding breeds or guarding breeds to help with your child's bolting, or to protect your child. Do not be swayed by the recommendations of breeders -- most do not understand the specialized requirements of service dogs.
Herding breeds (Australian Shepherds, Border Collies) herd by nipping and shoving. You child will very quickly learn to fear the dog. These breeds also have extremely high energy and require extreme amounts of exercise. Do you have time to deal with an obsessively active dog?
Guarding breeds (German Shepherds) are bred to keep threats out, not keep people in, so they will not help with bolting. They also have very high prey drives, and can be obsessed with chasing things. They focus on what is happening in the environment around them instead of on their people. They can be aloof -- unfriendly to people who are not members of your household, including your friends, your babysitter, your neighbors, non-household family members, and other children. They can also easily develop instinctive guarding behaviors that can quickly escalate from barking to growling, teeth-baring, and even lunging and biting at anybody who is not a member of your household, including emergency services people. Guarding dogs cannot distinguish between who is safe or dangerous -- only between who they know and who they don't know. German Shepherds require extremely consistent and precise training. All parents have a strong desire to protect their children, but a German Shepherd is not the right choice for this. Additionally, protection work, by law, is not allowed in a service dog.