A Closer Look at Service Dogs for Autism

CC BY-NC-ND by Heartlover1717

CC BY-NC-ND by Heartlover1717

Many families are exploring the joys of having a service dog for their child with autism.

Autism Daily Newscast has reported in previous articles on service dogs and the benefits to an individual on the autism spectrum. In this report we delve a little deeper into the experiences of families who have a service dog.

Tibisay Orozco, proud mom to Cesar who has autism, shares with the Autism Daily Newscast,

« Here in Canada they have service dogs trained specifically for children on the spectrum. I’ve met a few families with them and the experience has been very positive. The kids have learned how to socialize through the dog and become more independent. »

Families describe a long list of benefits linked to their service dogs. They praise these dogs for helping their children stay in their beds and sleep through the night and for feeling more secure in their daily lives and therefore exhibiting fewer stress-induced behaviors, such as repetitive and dysfunctional behaviors (hand flapping, head shaking, spinning, to name a few).

Parents explain their own comfort in knowing that theirs children’s service dogs are specifically trained to follow their child if he wanders. Services dogs also seem to help children with autism develop social relationships and approach other children. The service dog may be an icebreaker for conversation and help attract other, typically developing peers, to the child with autism.

The service dog becomes a loyal and supportive friend for the child. This is a beautiful relationship. Interacting with a service dog can help children become more responsible. The daily task of caring for a service dog can help children on the autism spectrum develop daily living and functional activity skills.

Crys Worley, mom to Sasha who has autism and founder of the A.Skate Foundation (www.askate.org), shares her son’s daily routine with their service dog, Duke.

« A daily routine for Sasha and Duke would be they wake up together, have their morning cuddles, we get school started at the kitchen table where Duke typically lays at Sasha’s feet, he follows Sasha around the house from room to room, lays beside him while Sasha plays Xbox or another game, and they go to bed together at the end of the day.

« In between all of this I am constantly helping redirect behaviors and attention/focus. If I give Sasha his clothes and say “get dressed” he often times comes out of his room with his clean clothes over his pajamas after 20 minutes of sitting on his bed staring at the wall or walking in circles talking to himself. »

Worley goes on to say,

« A service dog can’t “fix” all of the concerns that a parent has but we can use it a reinforcer to keep our kids on track. I can put a timer on, tell Sasha to “get dressed” and to remember the steps before he starts, and reward him with 15 minutes of dog cuddle time if he appropriately does his task before the timer goes off.

« When Sasha is having a meltdown, Duke typically barks right in his face to distract him forcing Sasha to pet him or cuddle with him in order to get him to stop barking. If Duke senses major tension or anxiety in Sasha he will follow him around and nudge him for attention to redirect before a behavior turns into something uncontrollable. »

As with any animal, it is, of course, important to always monitor the interaction your child has with his service dog, to make sure that the dog is behaving according to his training and is not easily startled or snappy.

In general however, service dogs are very well trained to be calm in a variety of situations and to protect your child. Demand for trained service dogs is high and it can be difficult to find an organization that is offering properly and thoroughly trained services dogs for autism.

Worley received Duke from DogWish. She explains that he received intensive training before coming home with her family. However, training is also ongoing once the dog comes home. She adds,

« Although Duke was a certified service dog when we took him home, I was able to carry over and continue Duke’s training through the support and guidance of DogWish.

« My original assumption of what a service dog should be and do completely changed over the years from expecting a robot dog to understanding that although the dog is trained and certified, he still has to learn how to serve his people in his new home. »