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 The earliest studies from the 1960s found benefits of dogs in helping severely withdrawn children.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:
- Social behavior
- 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