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Choosing a Therapy Dog for Your Child With Autism

September 18, 2023

A loyal companion, a friend who doesn’t require a lot of conversation, and even a gentle but insistent guardian; a dog can provide these things and more for a child, teen, or adult with autism.

Choosing a Dog for Your Child With Autism

According to the Journal of Pediatric Nursing, in a survey of families with dogs and one or more members with autism, 94% reported their child or teen formed a strong bond with the pup and benefited from their daily interactions. Learning more about the benefits of canine companionship and the potential costs and care needs can help you determine if a dog is right for your family and child at this time.

Therapy Dogs vs. Pets

Therapy dogs arrive pre-trained and ready to work with your child; they also carry a hefty price tag and, in many cases, a long waiting list. For those who a therapy dog is not an ideal option, a companion for your child can still be found. Other kinds of dogs are capable of being a companion, a protector, and a friend who does not require conversation or eye contact to engage with.

According to the AKC, Service Dogs and Therapy Dogs differ both from one another and from family pets or companions. A service dog is intended to provide assistance for someone with a disability; a therapy dog is trained to provide support and comfort. Both of these trained companions are welcome in public places; because of the ADA, there are very few places a service dog can’t go.

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If you choose a family pet, you will get many of the benefits of a therapy dog, but unless you also plan on investing in specific training, those benefits will apply only at home. You may not be able to have him/her go with your child wherever you go unless you invest in training.

Which Dog Breed is Best for a child with Autism?

While Golden Retrievers, Labs, and German Shepherds are often breeds of choice as therapy or companion animals, you are not restricted to a specific breed. Instead of picking a specific breed, considering the size, temperament, and needs of the dog and child will help you make the best choice for your family.

If your child has specific needs, consider those first when you determine which dog is right for you. A child with allergies may not bond well with a pup with a lot of dander and grooming requirements, while one with strong sensory seeking needs may require a sturdy, patient companion that can not only withstand, but enjoy hugs and attention.

Puppies vs. Adults

While that cute bundle of fluff is appealing, an adult dog is often a better option for a family with one or more members with autism. A puppy will go through some developmental stages that could be challenging (but are totally normal) and will require more care and attention in the early days. These needs could be too challenging for your child to assist with, preventing the two from forming a strong bond.

An adult has already reached his/her full size, so you won’t be surprised when the “cocker spaniel” you adopted turns out to be a Saint Bernard. You’ll also have a good idea of what his/her temperament is like and how well he/she might fit in with the rest of the family. Adults are more predictable than puppies and you can immediately begin to bond and incorporate your new pet into your family.

Note that the puppy you pick will grow and change swiftly; he/she will eventually lose that sweet puppy smell and fluff and you’ll have an adult dog, anyway.

Is There a Right Sized Dog for a Child with Autism?

There is no one size fits all pup; both large and small dogs can offer companionship, support, and sensory input for kids and teens with autism. Large dogs offer more sensory support and input and are more visible if you are heading out in public. Smaller dogs can be more portable (special vests allow these sweet pups to be easily picked up and carried in a wheelchair or stroller) and a source of cuddly comfort. In general, consider the following when you look at dogs for your child with autism:

Large, gentle, patient dogs are often good choices for older kids and teens with autism. These sturdy companions have not only calm temperaments, but their heft and weight can be as comforting as a weighted vest or blanket for someone with sensory needs. While these gentle giants are ideal companions as a child grows, your home does need to have enough room to support a big addition to the family.

Smaller dogs are ideal cuddly companions for those with special needs strollers or wheelchairs, since the pup can easily sit on a lap and provide both sensory input and a focal point. A smaller dog can easily fit into even the smallest of homes but will still need walks or a secure yard to play in. Some special needs salons are now including small breeds like Pomeranians in their facilities; the pups sit on laps and provide comfort and distraction while the stylist works.

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Top 10 Ways a Therapy Dog Can Help Your Child with Autism

Costs and Care for Companion Dogs

Adopting, not shopping, for your pet will help save a life; it will also help you save money on your pet. In some cases, a mixed breed pet is also healthier than his/her pricey full breed counterparts. According to VetStreet, a mixed breed may have less risk of genetic conditions associated with a specific breed and may exhibit more hardiness than a pure breed. Since overall health and susceptibility can impact your veterinary costs, it is an important factor to consider.

The size of the dog you choose will also impact your costs; the amount of food consumed by the typical Great Dane in a day could feed a smaller breed for a week. Since high quality food is important for your pup’s health, his/her size will play a role in your costs. You should be aware that an adult will need to oversee the daily care and feeding of the new pet, though your child may enjoy helping.

Any dog will need the same vaccinations, flea and pest protections, and training, regardless of size. These costs are not based on the breed or size of your pet and are essential for his/her good health and well-being. Consider these and other costs before investing in a companion for your child with autism.

A dog is a big investment of both time and money but can make a valuable addition to your family and become a trusted and beloved companion for your child with autism. Learning more about what to expect and consider before you pick out a pet can help ensure you find your perfect match and that your child gets the full benefit of having a canine companion.

This article was featured in Issue 99 – Navigating Relationships With Autism

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