Dogs are often referred to as man’s best friend. In fact, the American Pet Products Association found that in 2019, 63.4 million Americans own a dog.
Countless studies support the claim that having a dog improves overall well-being, especially for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). There are three areas where trained dogs can benefit ASD families: at home, in therapy, and on search and rescue missions.
When an ASD family contemplates getting a therapy dog, considerations such as the therapeutic benefits, cost, and overall lifestyle change must be taken into account. When families do end up getting a dog, the bond between the autistic child and pet often validates the decision.
Research has shown that for a child with autism, a dog companion not only provides therapeutic benefits, but also supports other positive behavioral changes. Having a dog improves social interactions for children with autism, prompting them to converse with other kids about having one. One study found that when an animal, such as a dog, is present, social behaviors increase in children with autism. Additionally, stress levels in children with autism are statistically lower for those with dogs as opposed to without.
Therapy dogs can also benefit an ASD family by preventing wandering, a common behavior in children with autism, especially after the age of four. Not only does the dog help to keep the child safe, but it also gives parents peace of mind having extra support when in public.
Lastly, a trained therapy dog at home can stop the habit of self-harm. Often when children with autism feel frustrated and cannot verbalize their feelings, they engage in self-injurious behaviors. Even if a child is performing a repetitive, non-harmful action, the dog will often put itself between the child and the source of harm.
Therapy is another area where dogs can improve the behavior of a child with autism. In Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), it is determined how a patient’s behavior works, how the environment affects it and how learning takes place. An ABA therapist can help someone with autism improve social interactions, learn new skills and maintain positive behaviors.
Behavioral health facilities have incorporated dogs into ABA programs with great success. For example, for children comfortable around dogs, spending time with therapy dogs—taking a walk, playing fetch, etc.—can be used as a reward system for patients.
Because dogs can seem intimidating and sometimes loud, using them in ABA sessions under supervision and in spaces familiar to the patient allows children with autism to grow more comfortable being around dogs. Research has shown that about 30 percent of those diagnosed with autism have a co-existing clinical phobia, fearing dogs, and other small animals.
Because of this phobia, in addition to therapy training, autism therapy dogs are trained further to be prepared for behaviors that exist on the autism spectrum, such as repetitive behaviors and quick movements. The dogs learn how to respond to varying degrees of autism. By being exposed to each other, both the dog and child with autism can be trained to interact with each other positively.
The most important part of dogs participating in ABA is the positive behavioral change in the children. Not only do children with autism feel more relaxed and inclined to participate with a dog around, as a result of anticipating the possibility of interacting with the dog, but it also encourages them to broaden their horizons in other areas. Being introduced to dogs can be a distressing situation, but slowly increasing their threshold for uncomfortable situations allows children with autism to grow and try other new things.
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Search and rescue missions are also important situations where a specially trained dog can have a positive impact. Children with autism are shown to be four times more likely to wander off due to sensory stimuli, overstimulation, or due to eloping behaviors when acting out. This can be a stressful time for both parent and child, and when a search team must be called in to help that anxiety can skyrocket.
A dog that is unfamiliar with the behavior of a frightened child in emotional distress may become excited, which can increase the child’s anxiety. A child in a heightened state of emotion who has never before interacted with a search and rescue animal may not understand that the dog is there to help.
However, dogs that are properly trained can often save a child’s life. After picking up the scent of a missing individual from their personal items, such as clothing or even a backpack, a trained scent-finding dog can locate the missing person.
Trained dogs must also go a step further when searching for a child with autism, who may be afraid of the animal or not understand what is happening during a rescue mission. Having training sessions can help the dog learn how to work quickly in a high-risk situation and allow the child to get comfortable being approached by a dog.
This article was featured in Issue 94 – Daily Strategies Families Need