Ethical Considerations Need to Be Made for Service Dogs

Some children with autism and their families are known to benefit from the presence of an assistance dog. Little research has been done on ethical issues that can arise around the dogs’ welfare or methods to limit the stress on both the dog and the family. The goal of this piece is to identify and examine the ethical considerations of dogs used in service to children with autism.

Ethical Considerations Need to Be Made for Service Dogs http://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/considerations-made-for-service-dogs/

Research shows the use of autism assistance dogs improves behavior and symptoms in some children with autism and can reduce overall family stress. In a study done to assess the physiological impact of assistance dogs on children with autism, researchers measured the cortisol awakening response (CAR) before and during the time an assistance dog was introduced into a family with a child with autism as well as after the dog was removed. Before the introduction of the assistance dog, there was a 58 percent increase in morning cortisol after awakening. Once an assistance dog was placed in the family, the increase of morning cortisol dropped to 10 percent. When the dog was removed from the family, the morning cortisol jumped to 48 percent (Viau et al., 2010). There is no doubt that autism assistance dogs relieve stress in children with autism and provide support for families. Unfortunately, there is little or no literature or research that addresses quality of life for the dog.

The first issue to be explored is how laws could apply to the protection of autism assistance dogs and how those laws would be enforced. Laws prohibit abuse, but legal follow-through is difficult. And, legally, what abuse entails in regards to service work has not been established.

The ethical issues to be explored include protections owed to autism service dogs. It is important to understand the stressors that dogs experience during their working day and how that affects the bond between dog and family.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides public access for people with disabilities who use service dogs but does not address the welfare of the dogs. Approximately 40 states have enacted laws that make “intentionally, knowingly, or even negligently harming an assistance animal” a misdemeanor or a felony. Most states have made it a felony to kill an assistance dog (Wisch, 2015).

For example, California provides restitution of up to $10,000 or imprisonment in a county jail to any person who intentionally causes injury to or the death of a guide, signal or service dog. (West’s Ann. Cal. Penal Code, 2017). While this law is intended to protect an assistance dog, it is centered towards compensating the human. It also assumes that someone other than the disabled person has harmed the dog.

According to Schmahmann & Polacheck, (1995), it would be dangerous to afford legal rights to animals because they would damage human rights. Animal rights place animals in the same category as humans and therefore devalue human life without taking into account that animals kill each other while human life is considered valuable and the taking of human life is a crime. Currently, there are no laws providing rights to autism assistance dogs.

Therefore, an autism assistance dog’s physical and emotional welfare is an ethical issue rather than legal at this time but is not often addressed before placement. In their study following 10 families and 11 autism assistance dogs placed into homes in Canada through 2003-2004 (one dog was retired and replaced by a new dog), Burrows, Adams & Millman (2008), found that most dogs had limited opportunities for play and rest. The dogs appeared to be exhausted and did not receive enough recovery time due to restrictions on drinking, eating, urinating and the expectation that they be available to prevent the child from bolting. Some dogs were subjected to unprovoked aggression. A major concern for these authors was sleep deprivation. If the dog was expected to sleep with the child, the dog could be woken throughout the night. If the dog attended school with the child and was “on duty” throughout the day, there was no chance for the dog to nap.

There are few studies that look at the issues that arise while integrating an autism assistance dog into a family. Many parents have higher expectations than a dog can meet. Also, parents often are not prepared for the extra work that caring for the dog entails, which can add to the stress of caring for a child with autism. The time of year placement occurs affects the ease of integrating the dog into the family. Families who received a dog in May had the summer to work with the dog, their child was home, and they were able to exercise the dog. Families who received a dog in November during inclement weather could not consistently exercise their dog, and they had the added stress of dealing with the holidays (Burrows & Adams, 2008).

Two issues included the inability for family members to correctly interpret the dog’s behavior, resulting in behavioral issues, such as dogs stealing food from the table; and minor health concerns, such as hot spots or diarrhea, which caused extra work and veterinary expenses. The resulting data from this study suggested that parents had high expectations of the dog or that they had not been educated about potential issues that could arise when integrating an autism assistance dog during the first year into their home (Burrows & Adams, 2008).

While parental anecdotes and research have shown these dogs can improve the lives of children with autism, it is also important to look at the welfare of the dogs and to provide oversight. Assistance dogs are social beings that require not only basic care but also companionship and affection. The level of bonding between child and dog may not be as strong as the average service dog team; autism teams are unique in that the dog is expected to bond with both the child and the parent handler. The dog takes commands from the parent but is attached to a child who usually has trouble showing loving emotions (Burrows, Adams & Millman, 2008).

Families with autism assistance dogs show no intent to harm, but rather a lack of education. Assistance dog programs are expensive and tend to focus on the productivity of the dog rather than addressing the needs of the dog and educating the family on the responsibilities of dog ownership. Establishing an advisory team consisting of veterinarians, trainers, and animal-behavior specialists to provide ongoing monitoring and education could better manage the dogs’ performance and welfare (Burrows et al., 2008).

Dogs rank toward the high end of the brain complexity spectrum and so should be protected from pain and fear (Grandin, 2002), and yet no state laws specifically protect the welfare of autism assistance dogs. These dogs often face stressful situations that most assistance dogs do not face such as long work hours without breaks and stressful situations in the home, yet neither assistance dog organizations nor the law addresses this ethical dilemma.

Assistance dog organizations act as moral agents and have role-related responsibilities to the dogs they place along with recipient families. These responsibilities include an obligation to protect the dogs from harm. If organizations place autism assistance dogs without additional support and education for the families receiving the dogs, a dog or child could ultimately be seriously harmed. If dogs or children are known to be harmed in such placements, future placements, which we know to be beneficial to children with autism and their families, could be impacted.

As the issue currently needs to be addressed from an ethical rather than a legal basis, specific guidelines regarding work time and expectations of autism assistance dogs should be developed, with the assistance of veterinarians and animal behaviorists. At a minimum, organizations should provide families with written information describing the needs of an autism assistance dog, possible expenses incurred through dog ownership, the pitfalls that could occur after placement, basic recommendations to assist with behavioral issues, and a list of local trainers, animal behaviorists, and veterinarians in the area where the family lives. Assistance dog organizations that place autism assistance dogs should also require adult family members to sign commitments that include these guidelines, thus removing any ambiguity regarding the dog’s welfare.

In addition, autism assistance dog providers need to protect the dog and provide ongoing family support through follow-up visits after placement to evaluate when and if bonding occurs and how families can best care for both dog and child. Researchers also need to conduct studies that can support the creation of educational programs as well as state laws protecting working dogs from harm within their service relationships.

These organizations are permitted to place dogs with families without fully investigating the family’s needs, home environment, and expectations. However, organizations must be ethically bound to investigate and discuss the behaviors of the children involved in the placement and assess parental oversight. Some children with autism move erratically, may pull food or toys away from the dog, or may show aggressive behavior toward the dog. Parents must be made aware that they are responsible for intervening on behalf of the dog and redirecting their child to enhance bonding and minimize harm towards the dog (Burrows et al., 2008). Providing a safe place in the home where the dog can rest and recuperate is ideal.

Assistance dog organizations are ethically prohibited from providing an autism assistance dog that is not properly trained and has not shown the appropriate behavior traits needed to assist a human companion. It is ethically ideal, but not required that all assistance dogs pass a public access test before being placed with an individual. Families should be aware that this public access test is an important piece of a successful placement.


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An example of an autism assistance dog organization that seems to be providing a safe environment for the dogs they place and in-depth information to parents is BluePath Service Dogs, Inc. located in New York. Their website has a family facts page where parents can learn what is entailed in maintaining a successful autism assistance dog partnership. On this page, the expense of acquiring the dog and maintaining the dog’s health is clearly stated. BluePath lists the requirements that families must meet to obtain an assistance dog on their “apply for a dog” page. One of the requirements stated on this page is, “Everyone in the home must be supportive of having a service dog, and no one can be allergic to dogs.” Support from every family member is critical to a successful placement. BluePath conducts an interview in the child’s home with a dog to assess how the child behaves and interacts with the dog. Parents are required to pass “a yearly certification test with the dog.” This is an effective policy to determine the level of bonding and training that is occurring on an ongoing basis. From BluePath’s website, it seems that parents will be given adequate knowledge in the beginning and continued follow-up to create a strong, effective and safe placement for dog and child, while diminishing parental stress.

Ideally, providing continued education to families about canine behavior and the physical and emotional needs of an autism assistance dog would increase the effectiveness of placements, provide a safe place for families to work through potential issues, facilitate more effective assistance dog teams, and protect the welfare of the dog. Continued research will identify possible concerns and provide creative solutions so that assistance dog organizations and families can provide safe environments where the dogs and the child can benefit from the special therapeutic and safety aspects provided by autism assistance dogs.

Burrows, K. E., & Adams, C. L. (2008). Challenges of service-dog ownership for families with autistic children: lessons for veterinary practitioners. Journal of veterinary medical education, 35(4), 559-566.

Burrows, K. E., Adams, C. L., & Millman, S. T. (2008). Factors Affecting Behavior and Welfare of Service Dogs for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal Of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 11(1), 42-62. doi:10.1080/10888700701555550

Grandin, T. (2002). Animals Are Not Things. A View on Animal Welfare Based on Neurological Complexity.

Schmahmann, D. R., & Polacheck, L. J. (1995). The Case Against Rights for Animals. BC Envtl. Aff. L. Rev., 22, 747.

Viau, R., Arsenault-Lapierre, G., Fecteau, S., Champagne, N., Walker, C. D., & Lupien, S. (2010). Effect of service dogs on salivary cortisol secretion in autistic children. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 35(8), 1187-1193. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.psyneuen.2010.02.004

West’s Ann. Cal. Penal Code § 600.2, 600.5, West’s Ann. Cal. Civ. Code § 54 – 55.32; West’s Ann.Cal.Educ.Code § 39839; West’s Ann. Cal. Food & Agric. Code § 30850 – 30854; West’s Ann. Cal. Health & Safety Code § 121680; Cal. Vehicle Code § 21963. Retrieved from https://www.animallaw.info/statute/ca-assistance-animal-california-assistance-animalguide-doglaws#s600_2

Wisch, R. F. (2015). Discussion of Assistance Animal Laws. Animal Legal & Historical Center.

Rebecca Richardson is the Director of College Governance at Bergin University of Canine Studies located in Rohnert Park, California. She is completing a Master of Science in Human-Canine Life Sciences degree at Bergin University. Rebecca has worked as an early intervention specialist for children with autism and has taught Associate of Science courses on autism and assistance dogs.

This is article was featured in Issue 74 – Every Voice Matters

Rebecca Richardson

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