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Choosing a Dog for Autism: The Best Dog Breeds

September 22, 2023

Besides being cute and a major source of love, dogs are an extremely valuable resource for learning when it comes to compassion, taking care of another living thing, feeling supported, and feeling less anxious. The connection between a dog and a child is an incredibly powerful thing.

Choosing a Dog for Autism: The Best Dog Breeds

Research suggests there are three types of dogs in particular you should consider if you are looking for a dog to help and support your child with autism. A service dog, a therapy dog, or a loyal companion.

There has been countless research done on the benefits of dogs for autistic children. Benefits include increased social skills, emotional support, and reduced anxiety.

According to the authors of a study that explores the Use of Assistance and Therapy Dogs for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: “It is possible to hypothesize that intervention strategy based on exploiting the emotional aspects of the relationship with a dog might represent an effective tool to dampen withdrawal of children with ASD by targeting some of the core symptoms of this disorder. The simple and interpretable pattern of movements that characterize dogs might facilitate the engagement of children with ASD in structurally simple social actions that do not require the interpretation of verbal cues and are highly repeatable and predictable (e.g., throw, fetch and retrieve play, walking the dog on a leash, giving a hand command).”

Difference between service dogs, therapy dogs, and loyal companions

Service dogs go through extensive training to perform tasks to help ease their handler’s disabilities. Service dogs are legally allowed to go into public areas with their handlers, such as the mall, grocery stores, or restaurants. These dogs have very specific reasons for being with their handler. There is usually a “no petting” rule assigned to service dogs as this could get in the way of them being able to pick up cues from their handler, therefore if you are considering a dog who you would want to show regular affection, service dogs would not be the best fit.

Autism service dogs

Autism service dogs can be highly trained to help people who have different sensitivities. An autism service dog is there to help relationships, increase social interaction, and develop its handler’s fine and gross motor skills.

Autism service dogs are trained to pick up cues for self-harmful behaviors of their handlers in stressful situations. In such a situation the dog will provide reassuring pressure such as leaning into its handler or putting its head on its handler’s lap to reduce anxiety and provide relief.

Therapy dogs

Therapy dogs on the other hand are trained to provide psychological or physiological therapy to people other than their handlers. They are brought into different venues to give comfort and healing to those who need it. Therapy dogs are brought into places such as schools, care homes, and rehabilitation centers.

These dogs are friendly and easygoing and are encouraged to interact with others while on duty, meaning petting is allowed. The role of a therapy dog can be quite diverse, from giving courage to children with learning disabilities to supporting those in rehabilitation.

Loyal companions

If you are looking for a dog who can be a family pet and give your child the love and affection dogs usually show their owners, then a loyal companion might be the answer. However, due to the different sensitivities of children with autism, giving your dog extensive training is highly important. This way you can ensure the dog doesn’t trigger your autistic child while doing something that could be prevented with proper training.

Best dog breeds for children with autism

Remember you are not only choosing a dog for your child, you are choosing a dog for your family. There are certain things you will want to take into account, such as, if your child has hearing sensitivities, dogs who are quick to bark might not be the best fit. If there is someone in the house who has allergies, choosing a dog who sheds a lot would create a stressful environment. Here are a few breeds which are popular among autism families: 

Saint Bernard

These gentle giants may seem intimidating due to their size, but Saint Bernards tend to be gentle and patient, making them a great choice for kids with autism. Saint Bernards are disciplined and smart, and able to carry out small tasks. This makes the Saint Bernard a great choice for a service dog. That being said, their size may count against them as they might overpower smaller children.

German Shepherds

German Shepherds are a favorite among dog lovers. With an innate protective instinct and an incredibly sharp mind, it is no wonder this breed is a very popular choice. German Shepherds are noticeably gentle and loyal to those they care about. German Shepherds are a well-chosen breed for service dogs due to their intelligence, focus, and ability to perform complicated tasks. This breed of dog might sound intimidating but they can keep up with small kids as needed and are dependable.

Golden Retrievers

Golden Retrievers are one of the most common breeds to be trained as service and therapy dogs. Golden Retrievers are very easy to train, they are adaptable and intelligent, and their height makes them perfect for people with physical disabilities. Golden Retrievers are very happy dogs, they are eager to please and are extremely loyal. If you are looking for the perfect breed for a therapy dog or a perfect companion for your autistic child, look no further than a Golden Retriever.

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Newfoundlands might be a surprising addition to this list, but this dog breed has been a therapy dog for kids with autism or emotional disorders for many years. Newfoundlands are smart and easy to train. This breed of dog isn’t very active, so they might be a good addition to the family for those whose kids prefer playing inside. These dogs also tend to have a sweet nature and an affinity for children.


A Labradoodle is usually a cross between a Labrador Retriever and a Toy Poodle. These curly-haired pups are a popular choice among families with kids with autism. Labradoodles do not shed excessively like many dogs, making them allergy friendly and a great choice for families who have respiratory allergies. Labradoodles are fun-loving dogs who are highly intelligent and are said to be easy to train, which makes them a good option as therapy dogs.

Choosing a Dog for Autism: The Best Dog Breeds

Great Pyrenees

Great Pyrenees dogs were bred as mountain dogs who were in charge of protecting sheep from wolves. These white giants are known to have a calm temperament and be loyal, sturdy, and gentle. That being said, Great Pyrenees need training as young dogs and regular exercise to keep up their obedience and their independent nature. These fluffy white guardians are a good match for kids with autism who enjoy being active.

Labrador Retriever

Labrador Retrievers are a popular choice for service and therapy dogs due to their friendliness and easy-going nature. Their intelligence and eagerness to please their handlers make them a good choice for a service or therapy dog. Labradors are a social breed but this doesn’t take away from their attentiveness to the needs of their handler. Whether you are considering a service dog, therapy dog, or a loyal companion, Labradors are always a good choice.

Bernese Mountain Dog

The Bernese Mountain Dog makes a great companion for kids with ASD because they are calm and very affectionate in nature. These dogs are highly intelligent and easy to train. Bernese Mountain dogs are eager to please, making them loyal companions for kids on the spectrum and a great family dog.

Did you know?

Did you know dogs can be born with canine dysfunctional behavior, which some people think of as a type of autism in dogs?

Veterinarians believe it is an idiopathic condition, meaning that the cause is still unknown. Vets hypothesize that this condition is caused by a lack of mirroring neurons in the brain. Mirror neurons allow the dog to mirror certain behavior that they see in other dogs, teaching them how to behave and act in certain environments.

Dogs who have canine dysfunctional behavior might exhibit communication issues, avoid eye contact, have impaired social interaction, canine anxiety, and trance-like behaviors, to name a few.

To end off

Remember, whether you choose a service dog, therapy dog, or loyal companion, a dog is a big responsibility and the choice to bring one into your family should not be taken lightly. If you are leaning toward getting a service dog or a therapy dog, many organizations will require you to fill out an application, interview you, and see your home to determine if the dog will be in a safe environment and well taken care of.

If you are leaning toward getting a loyal companion, remember early training is important for obedience.

Make sure your family is ready to receive a new canine addition and that your autistic child will treat the dog with respect. Dogs are known to bring happiness and love into their homes and I am confident one of the dogs on this list could be a great addition to your family.

Berry, A, Borgi, M, Francia, N, Alleva, E & Cirulli, F.(2013, 14 February) Use of Assistance and Therapy Dogs for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/full/10.1089/acm.2011.0835

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