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Autism and Service Dogs: Benefits & Types

Explore how autism and service dogs create a transformative bond, enhancing emotional stability and communication.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
May 31, 2024
10 min read
min read

Understanding Autism Service Dogs

Autism service dogs play a transformative role in the lives of individuals dealing with autism spectrum disorder. These specially trained canines provide both physical safety and emotional support, enhancing the quality of life for the individuals they serve.

Benefits of Service Dogs

Service dogs have been found to be very beneficial for some children and adults with autism. They are trained to interrupt self-harming behaviors, prevent wandering, and provide a calming influence, which can particularly helpful during moments of sensory overload. Beyond these task-oriented benefits, service dogs offer emotional support, companionship, and can often help their handlers to navigate social situations more comfortably. The presence of a service dog can provide a sense of routine and stability that is comforting to individuals with autism [1].

Organizations Providing Service Dogs

There are numerous organizations dedicated to training and providing service dogs to individuals with autism. Here are a few of them:

  • Autism Service Dogs of America: This organization provides well-trained service dogs that offer physical safety and emotional support for individuals with autism.
  • Canine Companions for Independence: A non-profit organization recognized worldwide for the excellence of their dogs and the quality of matches made between dogs and people.
  • Blessings Unleashed: A national program that trains rescue dogs to become service dogs for children with autism.
  • Custom Canines Service Dog Academy: A not-for-profit organization that creates lasting partnerships between highly skilled service dogs and individuals with diverse impairments and disabilities.
  • NEADS: Provides Service Dogs for children with autism, veterans with physical or PTSD needs, and professionals seeking therapeutic canine assistance in various settings like classrooms, hospitals, courthouses, mental health practices, or the ministry.
Organization Description
Autism Service Dogs of America Provides physical safety and emotional support
Canine Companions for Independence Renowned for quality dog-human matches
Blessings Unleashed Trains rescue dogs for children with autism
Custom Canines Service Dog Academy Provides dogs to individuals with diverse impairments and disabilities
NEADS Provides dogs for various settings and needs

Recognizing the transformative impact of autism and service dogs, these organizations strive to improve the quality of life for individuals with autism and their families. They provide specially trained dogs that can meet the unique needs of these individuals and offer ongoing support to ensure successful partnerships [2].

Training and Services Offered

Understanding the training process and services offered by Autism service dogs can provide a clearer perspective on the unique value they bring to individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). These dedicated canines are trained to perform specific tasks and provide assistance that significantly improves the quality of life for their handlers.

Tasks and Assistance Provided

Autism service dogs are trained to guide and assist individuals affected by ASD in a variety of ways. They are skilled at coping with crowded environments, obeying specific commands, and identifying warning signs that their person may be panicking or in distress [3].

A significant feature of autism and service dogs is their ability to ensure the safety of their handlers. Due to factors such as alarms, flashing lights, crowds, and commotion, children with ASD may experience agitation leading them to wander off. Autism service dogs can prevent this by using techniques such as "anchoring," where the child's belt is attached to a harness worn by the dog, allowing a third party to give commands to the dog to stay if the child becomes distracted or attempts to run away [3].

Emotional support and social communication are also facilitated by these skilled animals. Autism service dogs can help initiate new social connections, reduce barriers to starting conversations, and improve engagement in educational settings. The presence of these dogs brings predictability, security, and invaluable support to children with ASD, making a significant difference in their lives.

Moreover, they can be trained to apply Deep Pressure Therapy (DPT), a clinically documented approach to reduce cortisol, blood pressure, stress, anxiety, and panic, and to increase serotonin and dopamine levels. The methods of applying DPT can vary depending on the size of the dog and the person, as well as what is effective for the individual with autism [4].

Autism service dogs can also provide tactile stimulation, a grounding technique that works in tandem with DPT to calm and reconnect the person to the current time and place [4].

Training Process and Matching

The training process for autism service dogs is rigorous and tailored to meet the needs of the individuals they will serve. An important aspect of this process is matching the dog with the right handler. This is done by carefully assessing the needs, personality, and environmental factors of the individual with autism.

The training process involves teaching the dog specific tasks that will aid the individual with autism. This includes, but is not limited to, guiding the individual in crowded places, responding to distress signals, providing Deep Pressure Therapy, and ensuring the physical safety of the child.

Once the dog is fully trained, a period of acclimatization is necessary for both the dog and the individual. This allows them to form a bond and understand each other's signals and responses.

The aim of the training and matching process is to create a harmonious relationship between the service dog and the individual with autism, resulting in improved quality of life and increased independence.

Types of Service Dogs

In the realm of service animals, certain dogs are specifically trained to cater to the unique needs of individuals with disabilities, including Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and diabetes. The following sections will delve into the distinct roles and functions of Autism Service Dogs and Diabetic Alert Service Dogs.

Autism Service Dogs

Autism Service Dogs are specially trained canines that support and accompany children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). These dogs provide stability and soothing, which can be essential to help a child with ASD who frequently struggles with change. They are trained to listen to commands from the child with ASD, parents, or caregivers, and bond with both [3].

These dogs are trained to help improve relationships, increase social interaction, and develop fine and gross motor skills of their handlers. They are also trained to pick up cues for self-harmful behaviors in stressful situations to reduce anxiety and provide relief [5].

Autism Service Dogs can also help individuals with ASD overcome challenges in emotional and social communication. They can facilitate new social connections, reduce barriers to initiating conversations, and improve engagement in educational settings. These dogs bring predictability, security, and invaluable support to children with ASD, making a significant difference in their lives.

However, to meet the legal definition of a service dog, the dog must provide a service for a person with a disability as defined by the ADA and must be individually trained to perform task(s) and/or work that mitigate the symptoms of that person’s disability. An autism service dog must perform specific task(s) or work but there may also be a number of additional benefits that wouldn’t necessarily by themselves qualify the dog as a service dog [4].

Diabetic Alert Service Dogs

Diabetic Alert Service Dogs are specially trained to detect low or high blood sugar levels in their handlers. These dogs are conditioned to recognize the change in body odor that occurs when a person's blood sugar level shifts out of their target range.

Once the dog detects the change, they will alert their handler, allowing them to take necessary action to correct their blood sugar level. This can be particularly beneficial for individuals who have difficulty recognizing the symptoms of hypoglycemia or hyperglycemia.

In addition to detecting blood sugar changes, Diabetic Alert Service Dogs can also be trained to perform other tasks. This can include retrieving medication, fetching a phone during an emergency, or even pressing a specially designed button to call for help.

By providing an additional layer of security and independence, these service dogs can greatly improve the quality of life for individuals living with diabetes. However, just like Autism Service Dogs, they must meet ADA requirements and be individually trained to perform specific tasks to qualify as a service dog.

Choosing the Right Dog

When considering the relationship between autism and service dogs, it's crucial to select the right dog for the individual. This section delves into the considerations for selection and explores popular dog breeds for autism.

Considerations for Selection

Choosing a dog for a child with autism involves more than just selecting a preferred breed. It's important to consider factors such as the child's hearing sensitivities, any allergies in the household, and the dog's temperament. Additionally, it's necessary to understand the potential for canine dysfunctional behavior, a condition that might cause communication issues, avoidance of eye contact, impaired social interaction, anxiety, and trance-like behaviors in dogs [5].

The process of selecting the right type of dog, whether a companion dog, service dog, or therapy dog, involves finding a highly individual "match" that suits the child's needs and the family. This process can take up to 2 years from start to finish and requires patience, home visits, special training, and assistance from a local assistance dog agency.

Popular Dog Breeds for Autism

Certain dog breeds are popular choices among autism families due to their temperament, trainability, and compatibility with children with autism. Here are some breeds that are often recommended:

  • Saint Bernards
  • German Shepherds
  • Golden Retrievers
  • Newfoundlands
  • Labradoodles
  • Great Pyrenees
  • Labrador Retrievers
  • Bernese Mountain Dogs

Labrador Retrievers are a particularly popular choice for service and therapy dogs for children with autism due to their friendliness, easy-going nature, intelligence, and eagerness to please their handlers.

Furthermore, Golden Retrievers, labs, and labradoodles are recommended breeds for children with autism even as family pets, as they provide unconditional love, friendship, exercise, and opportunities to learn responsibility and practical skills [6].

In conclusion, the right dog can be a transformative companion for a child with autism, providing emotional support, enhancing social interaction, and contributing to their overall growth and development. It's important to make a thoughtful choice, considering all factors to find the best match for the child and the family.

Impact on Children with Autism

While it's well-known that service dogs play an invaluable role in assisting individuals with physical disabilities, their impact extends far beyond that. This is particularly true for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Autism service dogs provide significant emotional support, stability, and aid in social interactions for these children.

Emotional Support and Stability

Autism service dogs are specially trained canines that support and accompany children with ASD, providing stability and soothing, which can be essential for a child with ASD who frequently struggles with change. They are trained to listen to commands from the child with ASD, parents, or caregivers, and bond with both. This bond assists in establishing a sense of routine and familiarity, offering comfort and reducing anxiety [3].

Safety is also a significant concern for parents of children with ASD, as certain triggers like alarms, flashing lights, crowds, and commotion can cause agitation and lead children to wander. Autism service dogs can assist in keeping children physically safe through methods like "anchoring", where the child's belt is attached to a harness worn by the dog. This allows a third party to give commands to the dog to stay if the child becomes distracted or attempts to run away.

Social Interaction and Communication

In addition to their role in providing emotional support, autism service dogs also significantly impact the social interaction and communication abilities of children with ASD. They are trained to help foster relationships, increase social interaction, and develop fine and gross motor skills of their handlers. Moreover, they are trained to pick up cues for self-harmful behaviors in stressful situations to reduce anxiety and provide relief.

Autism service dogs can facilitate new social connections in children with ASD by reducing barriers to initiating new conversations and social interactions. They can also help in educational settings, leading to more engagement in the classroom [3].

In summary, the connection between autism and service dogs is much more profound than just companionship. These specially trained dogs bring predictability, security, and invaluable support to children with ASD, making a significant difference in their lives.

Legal and Training Requirements

Understanding the legal and training requirements is a crucial part of the process when considering autism and service dogs. This helps ensure that the dog can provide the necessary support and perform the tasks needed by the individual with autism.

Definition of Service Dogs

To meet the legal definition of a service dog in the United States, the dog must be individually trained to perform tasks or work that mitigates the symptoms of a person's disability, as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) ELLAS Animals INC.

In the context of autism service dogs, they must perform specific tasks or work, such as deep pressure therapy or tactile stimulation. However, it's important to note that while these dogs may provide additional benefits like companionship and emotional support, these alone do not qualify the dog as a service dog.

Training for Specific Tasks

The specific tasks performed by an autism service dog can vary greatly depending on the individual needs of the person they are assisting. Here are two well-known approaches utilized by service dogs:

Deep Pressure Therapy (DPT): Autism service dogs can be trained to provide Deep Pressure Therapy (DPT), a clinically documented approach known to reduce cortisol, blood pressure, stress, anxiety, and panic, while increasing serotonin and dopamine levels. This can be achieved in a variety of ways depending on the size of the dog and the person and what is effective for the autistic person ELLAS Animals INC.

Tactile Stimulation: Tactile stimulation can be grounding like DPT and the two can actually work together to calm and then reconnect the person to the current time and place. This can be passive on the part of the dog, which means the person is touching the dog ELLAS Animals INC.

The training process for these tasks is rigorous and requires a professional service dog trainer to ensure that the dog is capable of performing these tasks reliably and safely.

These legal and training requirements are in place to ensure that service dogs are appropriately matched with individuals who genuinely need their support, and that they are equipped with the skills to provide this support effectively.

References

[1]: https://www.autismspeaks.org/assistance-dog-information

[2]: https://neads.org/i-got-the-right-match/

[3]: https://www.ecad1.org/index.php/resources/blog/193-what-do-autism-service-dogs-do

[4]: https://ellasanimals.org/tasks-and-work/autism-service-dog-tasks-work-and-benefits/

[5]: https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/choosing-autism-therapy-dog-breed/

[6]: https://www.autismspeaks.org/expert-opinion/service-dog-or-therapy-dog-autism

steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

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