Ways a Service Dog Can Change Your Special Needs Child’s Life

Ways a Service Dog Can Change Your Special Needs Child's Life https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/service-dog-can-change-special-needs-childs-life

Most people are pretty familiar with the saying, “A dog is a man’s best friend.” Dogs are animated, fiercely loyal, and guarded protectors. But their worth goes beyond just being a trusted companion. For many, these furry friends serve a significant purpose as therapy dogs in the treatment of social, behavioral, and cognitive delays common in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The use of therapy dogs is not a new concept. The earliest studies from the 1960s found benefits of dogs in helping severely withdrawn children. However, it was not until nearly three decades later that science was able to validate the utility of using dogs for therapy.

Today, therapy dogs proudly serve several purposes:

  • Safety
  • Social behavior
  • Compliance
  • Emotional regulation
  • Physical assistance/motor development

As a parent with a child on the autism spectrum knows, many kids have a limited concept of personal safety, which often results in children eloping (bolting) into parking lots, crowded stores, or the street. Autism therapy dogs are specially trained to assist families with public safety concerns by tethering the child to the dog’s harness which helps minimize the chance of elopement. While therapy dogs are often used to help prevent elopement for children with autism or other developmental disabilities, dogs should be used to supplement, not replace, individualized safety programs for children with special needs.

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Often, the family dog is a child’s first “best friend.” This occurrence extends to children with special needs who often build very close friendships with their canine buddies, helping foster social and communication skills in developmentally challenged children. Research suggests that children feel more secure and less anxious in social environments when therapy dogs are present, thus promoting a positive social experience.

Improvements in daily schedules and compliance with caregivers’ directives have been reported in children with autism who routinely use therapy dogs for transitions, chores, and low-preferred activities. Existing research supports the use of therapy dogs for gaining compliance in school activities and homework, assisting in community outings, and in supporting medical/dental check-ups.

Studies suggest the use of therapy dogs in lowering the frequency, intensity and duration of tantrums, as well as repetitive and self-stimulatory behaviors in children with autism by helping to regulate the physiological stress response to environmental triggers. Less maladaptive behaviors can indicate more opportunities for developing new, pro-social skills. #WIN-WIN.

Similarly, therapy dogs are often used for occupational therapy to help increase children’s fine and gross motor development by performing simple tasks such as brushing the dog’s hair, playing catch, or going for a therapeutic walk. Simply stated, therapy dogs can provide significant support to a child’s occupational therapy needs, helping to increase independence toward goal mastery.

Parents of a child with autism should remember a number of things when considering a therapy dog:

  • Dogs should be matched to the family’s personalities and home environment.
  • Therapy dogs should be matched to meet the child’s developmental needs.
  • Families should be prepared to undertake service dog training.
  • Use reputable agencies that specialize in service dogs for children with ASD/developmental disabilities.


Berry, A., Borgi, M., Francia, N., Alleva, E., & Cirulli, F. (2013). Use of assistance and therapy dogs for children with autism spectrum disorders: A critical review of current evidence. The Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine, 19, 73-80.

Burgoyne, L., Dowling, L., Fitzgerald, A., Connelly, M., Browne, P.J., & Perry, I.J. (2014). Parents’ perspectives on the value of assistance dogs for children with autism spectrum disorder: A cross-sectional study. BMJ Open, 4(6), e004786.

Burrows K., Adams C., Millman S. Factors affecting behavior and welfare of service dogs for children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science,11, 42-62.

Burrows, K., Adams, C., & Spiers, J. (2008). Sentinels of safety: Service dogs ensure safety and enhance freedom and well-being for families with autistic children. Qualitative Health Research, 18, 1642-1649.


This article was featured in Issue 65 – Back-To-School Transitions

Annie Tanasugarn

Annie Tanasugarn is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, certified by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board. She holds an MS degree in Clinical Psychology and is completing the final steps of her doctorate degree. Annie has 15 years of clinical training in behavior management for both neurotypical and developmentally-delayed children, and she specializes in autism spectrum disorders. Annie has been trained in multiple intervention techniques that are integrated into her comprehensive 1:1, and parent-training programs. Annie's online blog, The Autism Analyst, can be found at: blog.theautismanalyst.com , and she additionally holds a private practice in helping empower children and families impacted by autism and behavioral problems.

  • Avatar Chwrie says:

    Interested in getting a dog for my grandson, he’s 5, and his Mom and Dad. Want to do something positive, if they work together.

  • Avatar Judy Edwards says:

    I am very interested in a therapy dog for my 13 year old autistic son. Who do I contact?

  • Avatar Darrell not vogt says:

    Like to get more inf0l on service dogs

  • Avatar Jennie Heidbreder says:

    Interestested in having a therapy dog for my grandson of 3 yrs with ASD, non-verbal. Who do I contact in my area?

  • Avatar Erin says:

    You use the term therapy dog and service dog interchangeably in this article, but they are not interchangeable terms. A therapy dog cannot come out into the community (stores, restaurants, etc) with a person in the same manner as a service dog. Service dogs are trained to provide specific services, while therapy dogs are primarily for comfort.

    If anyone is interested in a service dog for their autistic child, I recommend looking into 4 Paws For Ability.

  • Avatar Melinda says:

    I always wanted to have a therapy dog for my 11 year old son. Where in central jersey can I find one?

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