Guides to therapy dogs for autism

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by Barry Shechter
Reprinted with permission

EDITOR’S NOTE: Although therapy dogs aren’t an ed-tech tool, they can help alleviate negative feelings caused by isolation from remote learning. This article discusses how dogs can help and where to find out more information. It is an abbreviated version of an article at https://dogdigz.com/therapy-dog-autism/.

When dealing with autism, one option families explore is bringing an autism therapy dog into the family. “Therapy dog” is used here as a blanket term, but there are differences between service dogs and therapy dogs. There is also a third category, which is a companion dog.

Therapy dogs

A therapy dog is trained to provide comfort in a therapeutic context. Settings you may see therapy dogs include nursing homes, health and mental health facilities, and hospitals.

Sometimes a therapy dog can help a patient overcome a stressful or traumatic procedure, or they might help with occupational or physical therapy. A therapy dog is an option for people with autism because the dog can help encourage social interaction as well as being calming.

Certain agencies are accredited to connect people with therapy dogs, such as the Assistance Dogs International organization.

Therapy dogs don’t have federally-mandated access to public places, and if you opt for a therapy dog for your child it’s important that you take the time to find the right match not only for your child but for your family. A specialized agency can help. When a family does decide to bring in a therapy dog, it can take up to two years to go through the process which often includes home visits and specialized training.

Companion dogs

A companion dog is a specially trained pet that can be calming for someone with autism. These dogs provide not just a sense of comfort, but also help a child with autism get more social interaction and learn the responsibilities that come with caring for the dog. Companion dogs are often golden retrievers, Labradors and Labradoodles because these breeds tend to be very calm and intelligent.

If you adopt a companion dog from a rescue setting, be cautious and learn about the dog’s history before bringing it into your home to reduce the likelihood of a bad reaction when the dog feels scared or threatened.

Service dogs

Service dogs are specially trained and certified to help someone with disabilities perform functions in their daily life. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a person can legally bring their service dog in all public spaces, including restaurants.

A service dog is uniquely trained to meet the needs of the person it will be helping. An autism service dog might help a child with anxiety when they go to school or in public, for example. There are even service dogs that can interrupt self-harming behaviors or serious emotional situations like panic attacks.

Ways that dogs help children with autism

Specific ways a therapy dog might help a child with autism include:

Children who have autism often deal with emotional outbursts. A therapy dog can help a child stay calmer in these situations or help prevent these scenarios.

  • Repetitive motions and behaviors are common symptoms of autism, but a trained therapy dog may help reduce these behaviors. Some therapy dogs are trained to recognize when these symptoms will start, and they can then interrupt them.
  • Some autistic children are prone to wandering off, and a dog may bark to let family members know if this is happening.
  • Specifically trained therapy dogs may be able to play “games” with an autistic child to help with sensory processing. For example, games could include tug of war or hide and seek.
  • Therapy dogs can help a child with autism be more confident to engage with their environment.
  • Nonverbal children may increase how much they speak with their therapy dog is present.
  • A therapy dog or companion dog provides friendship and love and can help combat loneliness a child might feel.
  • Having a dog with them might help a child sleep better.
  • Having a dog can create a sense of consistency when there are a lot of changes in a child’s environment.

Organizations that can help

  • 4 Paws for Ability is a nonprofit that trains and places task-trained service dogs. 4 Paws for Ability can help your autistic child become more independent, and 4 Paws for Ability also educates the public about the use of service dogs in public places
  • Autism Service Dogs of America provides dogs that serve as an emotional anchor for children with autism. The group was founded in 2002 and they train each service dog for the individual needs of a family they’re placed with.
  • Alliance of Therapy Dogs is an international registry of certified therapy dog teams. They do testing, certification, registration, insurance, and support for members who volunteer with their dogs in certain activities assisted by animals.
  • NEADS Social Dog Program helps provide service dogs for children ages 8 to 16 with autism or other developmental disabilities. To be matched with one of their service dogs, you have to visit their NEADS campus in Princeton, MA for an intake interview and in-person evaluation.
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