Service Dogs for Kids on the Autism Spectrum

Some children with autism spectrum disorders can benefit from a service dog. Learn what an autism service dog does and how to find a dog.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #171

Service Dogs for Kids on the Autism Spectrum

A listener, Bill, writes:

“We have 3 girls, ages 7, 4, and 2, who have never been around dogs. Our 7-year-old is on the autism spectrum and we’ve heard how a dog can be great therapy treatment for kids with autism. So, after months of discussion, research, and persistence from the girls, we got a dog. He’s part German Shorthaired Pointer and maybe part Lab or  Boxer. He’s 6 months old, about 30 pounds, very smart and very active. And he’s never been around kids.  He immediately attached to my wife and he loves me. But the kids are a different story.  He appears nervous or anxious and treats them differently. We’ve done the one-on-one with our oldest and he appears to be changing with her. However, with the other two, he’s still defensive. We’ve had him 5 days now and can return him to his foster parent.  What do you recommend?  Should we have gotten a younger puppy?”

This week, how a service dog may help out a child who has an autism spectrum disorder and some advice for Bill and his family.

Kids on the autism spectrum can have a tough time behaviorally (and their behavior can be tough on others). Some children bolt. Others may have emotional meltdowns because they can’t express their frustration in words or feel utterly overwhelmed by sounds and sights that the rest of us might find merely annoying. And, as most of you probably know, they often have a hard time connecting with other people because they don’t read social cues intuitively.

One common role for an autism service dog is as a tether – literally. The child wears a line connecting her to the dog, and the dog is taught to brace and hold still if the child bolts. Or the child’s parent may cue the dog to sit, which buys Mom or Dad time to catch up. A child with autism may wander in the middle of the night; a service dog sleeping in her bed can alert the household if the child gets up. Some children with autism take comfort from overall gentle pressure and sleep better with the dog against or even on top of them.

Everyday life with a service dog can help a child learn motor skills: throwing a ball, opening a food container, stroking gently. And the presence of a service dog can provide the whole family social benefits. Other people recognize the service dog as a signal that someone nearby has a disability, so they may respond with more patience and kindness if the child acts out. For children who struggle to interact with others, conversations can take place through and about the dog. Well, no surprise there! We probably all know how dogs can provide a social bridge whether we have autism or schizophrenia or plain old ordinary shyness.

With all the good a service dog can do, it’s important not to expect picture-perfect Lassie. Many dogs are startled and frightened by the behavior of “neurotypical” kids, kids who aren’t on the autism spectrum. An autistic child may have frequent meltdowns, perhaps with repetitive screaming. He may have real trouble regulating physical touch to keep it gentle and may hit or hurt the dog without in any way meaning to do so. That child’s dog needs to be even sturdier and more unflappable than other family dogs. One provider of autism service dogs prefers to place them as puppies, the idea being that the dog grows up familiar with a child’s behavior patterns and can be taught child-specific service tasks from early on. This makes sense, but a young puppy should get extra protection from unintended rough handling.

This leads us right into the ethics of using service animals. Ethicists point out that service dogs don’t get a choice of vocation and that someone needs to look out for their interests. After all,  a dog can’t advocate for herself. Service dogs need exercise, rest, and time to “just be dogs.” They shouldn’t be given tasks they physically can’t handle – for instance, a puppy weighing 25 pounds can’t safely tether a 40-pound child if he bolts. And if the dog shows signs of chronic stress or anxiety, it may be appropriate to retire her from the work.

And now we’re back to my listener’s problem. What should he do about the fact that the puppy his family got to help out their autistic child isn’t comfortable around kids?

Housetraining aside, few of the dilemmas I hear about from my audience have a clear answer. This one does.

Housetraining aside, few of the dilemmas I hear about from my audience have a clear answer. This one does. Unless the adults in the household are expert dog trainers themselves, or the placement is done by a service dog group and comes with plenty of advice and support, a puppy, especially one like Bill’s, is usually a bad fit for a family with young children. As a colleague recently put it, a puppy is like an extra child, except he refuses to wear diapers and has very sharp teeth. For most families, that’s a prescription for trouble, as all the young things involved find ways to hurt and scare each other. And the puppy’s guidance and development almost always get short shrift.

As for this particular puppy, he came into the home with no child-related experience and Bill calls him “nervous or anxious” around them. So the family isn’t even starting from zero here, with a puppy or dog who has no particular association with kids – they’re starting with an actual deficit. The icing on the cake is the puppy’s breed mix, with German Shorthaired Pointer as a prominent feature.  GSPs originated as hunting dogs, work that many of them still do. And while the  individual is what counts, not breed stereotype,  I generally expect GSPs to need much more daily aerobic exercise than most dogs, even most other puppies. Sure enough, Bill reports the new puppy is “very active.”

It’s a little tough to see how that pup’s behavioral and physical needs can be met or how he can grow into a reliable, appropriate, and contented service dog. I recommend that Bill’s family return the pup to the foster home. They should explain loud and clear that he’s not comfortable around children, because the rescue group fostering him should accept responsibility for providing the puppy with qualified behavioral help. And Bill and his family should work with an organization that specializes in raising and training service dogs. The result will, I hope, be a good outcome for everyone.

If you like what you hear on The Dog Trainer, please share the podcast with your fellow dog lovers. And, for more about teaching and living with your dog, check out my book, The Dog Trainer’s Complete Guide to a Happy, Well-Behaved Pet.

You can follow me on Twitter, where I’m Dogalini. I’m The Dog Trainer on Facebook, and you can also write to me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. I welcome your comments and suggestions, and though I can’t reply individually, I may use them as the basis for future articles. Thanks for listening.

Boy with Dog and Puppy images courtesy of Shutterstock

About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).