In the spirit of Autism Awareness Month, all of April, I’d like to put the spotlight on some very special dogs that have helped countless children, teens and adults with autism: Autism Service Dogs.
There are all kinds of service dogs, and you have probably seen many of them throughout your life. They can be spotted wearing a vest or jacket indicating that they are “on the job.”
About service dogs in general
When most people think of service dogs, they think of guide dogs, for example – for the blind. At least that’s what I always imagined. I wasn’t aware until the past few years that there were service dogs for many other impairments and health issues, including:
- hearing dogs
- seizure alert dogs
- mobility dogs
- psychiatric service dogs
- autism dogs
Emotional Support Animals
I had not heard about “emotional support animals” until the news of the emotional support pig that got booted off the plane last fall – here’s a link to that story. Emotional Support Animals don’t even have to be dogs, they can be pretty much any kind of animal. More information about these types of support animals can be found here.
Autism Service Dogs
Today however, I’m going to talk about Autism Service Dogs. I find this fascinating, partly because I have a son with autism, and partly because I just think it’s a really intriguing concept. How does one train a dog to specifically work with those who have autism?
It’s certainly not as cut and dried as I would imagine other service dogs work – for example vision and hearing guide dogs.
Paws With a Cause, an organization that breeds and trains dogs specifically for life as a service or guide dog, has this to say about Autism Service Dogs:
“Service Dogs for Children with Autism act as constant companions to children with autism to help them improve social interactions and relationships, expand verbal and nonverbal communication, teach life skills, increase interest in activities and decrease stress within the family. A PAWS Dog doesn’t pass judgment, but breaks into the world of autism and becomes a crucial part of the family’s life.”
Hmmm, that’s pretty cool! I did some homework on this, and here are some of the things Autism Service Dogs can do (courtesy of the website Canines 4 Hope):
- Impulsive Running – dog will help retrieve and get child back to parent
- Self Harming Behavior – dog will interrupt behavior and alert parent
- Awakening at Night – dog will bark to alert parents
- Interpret Mood Swings – dog will crawl into child’s lap to calm child
- Interrupt Social Isolation – child tends to focus on dog companionship
- Non-Verbal Child – child learns to give dog commands
- PICA – dog will stop child from eating inappropriate items
- Self Stimulation – dog can interrupt behavior
The only one of the above services I’m a bit “iffy” about is the dog interrupting self-stimulation – in autism-speak this is known as “stimming” – and in my experience, unless it is a harmful behavior, I do not try to stop my son from stimming because it is a self-soothing activity that helps him cope. However, I am sure this is something that can be trained on a case-to-case basis. Certainly if there are self-harming behaviors that would require alerting the parent!
Social Skills – a huge benefit
I love the idea of a dog helping a child (or teen or adult) with social skills. Rare is the person who doesn’t love a dog. They are like magnets when you take them on walks or to the park for example. I can definitely see how pairing up a person with autism with a dog could help them to relax more in environments that might cause them anxiety.
The child can be transformed from “the kid with autism” to “the cool kid with that AWESOME dog!” – not that I am in any way, shape or form saying that someone needs to be “cool.” That’s ridiculous, in my opinion. However, from personal experience, I’ve seen the awful ways that people can look at anyone who is different – and those with autism get this a lot. If having a great, friendly, wonderful dog can help them to be more at ease in social situations, I think that is a huge positive.
When Jake was in the fourth and fifth grade, his lead teacher in special education had a service dog present in the classroom. She reported – and we observed – how much Jake benefited from the loving companionship of this dog. It was heartwarming to see this darling dog interact with the kids, how she made them smile and laugh, and how she was able to calm them when they had occasional “meltdowns.”
Autism Service Dogs can be a great conversation starter, a way to help someone with autism get some low-pressure practice at conversational skills. They are a calming presence, which can be enormously helpful to those with autism who also suffer with anxiety (the two can go hand in hand, understandably so).
Safety, security and protection – priceless
Safety and protection are another great perk of Autism Service Dogs. They can be trained to watch over a child who has a habit of running off (this is a very common problem among younger children with autism – we had many heart-stopping moments when our then non-verbal son would take off at the speed of light and disappear with no warning, leaving us panic-stricken and filled with anguish. 911 was called on more than one occasion). They can alert the parents and can track the child immediately. Some children have tethers with their dogs (who are trained to guide them this way), which adds an extra amount of security and safety.
Show me the money
Autism Service Dogs are pricey, no doubt about it.
I’ve seen rates from $12,000 to well over $20,000 – but on the other hand, many organizations are very happy to help the family in fundraising efforts to make their dream a reality. So I wouldn’t say it’s an impossible dream for those without a lot of money. On the contrary, I think if it is something a family really feels positive about, that it can help their child or family member, that it can be done. Passion and fundraising can go a long way!
As for me, well – our dog JJ is not a trained Autism Service Dog – but Jake (my son with autism) loves him, and JJ loves Jake. That love is plenty enough for me. However, if I had heard of Autism Service Dogs when Jake was first diagnosed (way back in 2003), I probably would have jumped at the opportunity!
Nowadays, awareness of this kind of service dog is spreading, and there are organizations popping up everywhere that train and provide those with autism a service dog who is a custom fit for their temperaments, personalities and needs.
More information: videos
Here are some cool videos that showcase the many benefits of Autism Service Dogs:
More information: websites
Here are some websites you can visit for more in-depth info:
Service Dog Central (general site about service dogs, this link goes right to the page about Autism Service Dogs)
Autism Speaks (page with resources about Autism Service Dogs)
Earlier this month I highlighted several dogs and cats who “lit it up blue” in support of autism awareness – they really stepped up to the plate to show their support! You can check out these awesome pets at: Dogs Supporting Autism Awareness and Cats Supporting Autism Awareness.
I hope you found this information as interesting as I did! If you have any experiences with service dogs – for autism or otherwise – please share in the comments below, or write me at firstname.lastname@example.org – I’d love to hear your story!