I recently wrote an article featuring the nonprofit agency 4 Paws for Ability, which trains and provides skilled service dogs to disabled individuals.
The agency’s core mission is training these amazing animals to help handicapped children — specifically children with autism. I have encountered many readers since the article ran who ask, “How can a dog be trained to assist a child with autism?”
It is a great question, and the answer is interesting.
Autism is a complex condition that is present from birth. Symptoms are recognized by the time a child is 3. The medical classification is Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD.
Autism spans a wide range of neurodevelopment disorders. Children affected with autism experience:
- Social impairments
- Communication difficulties (verbal and nonverbal)
- Abnormal behavior patterns (restrictive, repetitive, stereotyped)
The characteristics and severity of ASD symptoms vary among individuals. The cause and potential treatments for this disability is the subject of intense research. There is no known cure for the disorder. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1 in 88 children suffer from ASD.
Help From Four Legs
Imagine you are the parent of an ASD child. You go for an outing in the park and suddenly your child disappears from your sight, begins a frightening temper tantrum or bolts toward a traffic-filled street. What do you do?
If you are fortunate enough to have a well-trained service dog, you breathe a sigh of relief because you have a four-legged guardian that will intervene.
A confirmed method of improving daily life for the child affected with ASD is therapy. The goal of any intervention is to lessen deficits, increase functional independence, and enhance the quality of life for the child and his or her family. A service dog trained to deliver essential guidance and support can provide assistance to get the child through daily routines. The service dog establishes the critical link between the child and the rest of the “normal” world.
Training for Dog and Child
Autism specialty service dogs are usually selected and trained at an early age. They must be able to react to a wide range of unique conditions and must be intelligent, calm, patient and capable. Breeds most commonly used as autism service dogs include:
- Labrador Retrievers
- Golden retrievers
- German Shepherds
- Standard poodles
Dogs begin their training with an approved foster home. There they learn basic training principles. As the dog matures and proves himself reliable, he is transitioned to more advanced training, often referred to as “doggie boot camp.”
By the time the dog reaches the specialized training classes, he has been matched with a child. The unique requirements of each child are taken into consideration, and the expert training is tailored to those needs.
Most creditable programs offer advanced training by a certified behavior and autism specialist. The service dog, the child and primary family members all participate in the companion training and bonding experiences.
The relationship with an autism service dog tends to improve the child’s physical, social emotional and/or cognitive functioning. Ongoing training, continuous support, appropriate fit and health evaluations are critical to the success of the service dog/child team.
Service Dog Success
The measure of a service dog’s success resides in the daily accomplishments of the child he serves. Documented evaluations of dog/child teams indicate an immediate response in the reduction of stress experienced by the child.
Three key markers of consideration and intervention include:
- Social: An ASD child’s positive response to their service dog improves her social interaction. The ASD child communicates with the dog often, talking to him and eventually learning to provide voice commands. Communication with adults, siblings and peers improves dramatically, and eye contact increases as a direct result. The interaction with an autism service dog also expands the child’s attention span and interest in activities.
- Behavior: A child with an autism service dog tends to be more at ease in her environment. The therapeutic effect is shown to lessen the frequency and severity of behavior disruptions such as aggression, temper tantrums and meltdowns. Autism dogs are trained to stop the child from self-stimulation, self-harm, eating nonfood items and repetitious behavior. The dog will nudge, kiss, cuddle and calm the child to channel the behavior elsewhere.
- Safety: In public places, the child and dog are usually tethered together by a belt. The ASD child has a certain amount of autonomy, but should she wander from the adult, the dog provides an anchor. Most autism service dogs are trained to lie or sit if the child separates from her guardian, making continuous movement difficult for the child. Should the child become detached from the dog, the service animal is trained to track by scent detection. Autism service dogs also provide sight and hearing assistance in the event that sensory input is compromised.
This video shows how a service dog named Elf (from 4 Paws for Ability) keeps a child with autism safe:
The world as we know it can be an overwhelming, terrifying place for an autistic child. A well-trained service dog specializing in overcoming some of the difficulties of life for the ASD child can bring a sense of safety, security and comfort for his companion and the entire family!