The Curious Case of Autism Service Dogs – Life Changing Impacts of Animal Therapy

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The sight of dogs helping to keep children with Autism calm or helping them to find the correct classroom and designated seat is becoming more and more common nowadays. And so is the sight of a dog lying calmly at a child’s feet amidst a busy social situation.

Or, it can be a dog helping a child with ASD release tension putting his front paws on the individual’s lap and applying deep pressure to stop the back-and-forth rocking. The role of these autism service dogs, in the life of many children is quite unique.

autism service dogs
Ayden Harris, 5, sits with Jake, an autism service dog, at a softball fundraiser to help the family raise money for the dog.

Autism service dogs are specially trained to perform these specific tasks. They help their autistic human companions navigate through and better integrate to the society.

The impairments in communication and social-interaction skills of an autistic individual present quite a challenge even for daily living activities and autism service dogs can change the way these people interpret the world.

These specially trained friends help people with autism gain confidence and independence. Their journey, to assist their human masters, start like any other service dog, learning house-training, basic obedience and then moving on to perform more complex skills.

These assistance dogs can identify obstacles, alert in case of danger and respond to specific commands.

Why Autism Service Dogs?

Anyone medically diagnosed with autism, or ASD, qualifies for the service of an autism assistance dog. Most U.S.-based organizations train and place autism service dogs after matching the dog(s) to the families. The state disability services have detailed literature on the procedures for reaching out to area-specific service dog programs.:

Autism significantly varies in its character and severity. Therefore, every autism service dog needs to be trained differently; according to an autistic individual’s gradient on the spectrum.

One such service dog organization (Paws for a Cause) trains their dogs to help improving social interactions and relationships of autistic individuals. They also help to expand verbal and nonverbal communication along with teaching life skills.

Such assistance dogs have been seen to increase the individual’s interest in activities and decrease stress within the family. They help in various daily living activities like getting the child ready for work/school in the morning; picking up dropped objects, alerting passers-by in case of emergency situations and induce calm in the person’s life. Says Ayden’s father:

It’s an incredible help and companionship.

The Dog’s Role in Sensory Situations

It’s known that Autism impacts the sensory system and it stresses out many autistic people by uncomfortable sensations.

Autism service dogs do not usually need a lot of new training when it comes to dealing with a person’s sensory levels. Their instincts are largely responsible for detecting potential sensory overloads.

The dogs can naturally intervene when the person becomes over-stimulated, thus alleviating their stress levels to maintain safety. That’s blocking meltdowns, which otherwise might become a risky business.

The Life Changing Impact on Children

cards-for-autism-service-dogsAutistic children usually have a hard time communicating with other people, including people in their immediate families. The autism service dogs bridge this gap and alleviate the stress that social interaction might cause.

Gretchen Carlisle (research fellow; University of Missouri) explains it in a study published in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing in 2014. The study found dogs to act as social lubricants. When a child with autism invites his/her peers to play with the dog, the dog facilitates communications and fills in the gap.

According to Gretchen,

With the dog, it’s always a built-in conversation on a preset topic; that takes care of the hard time these children face speaking to others.

Often, for some children, these dogs also become a physical connection to the real world. A dog can keep an autistic child from wandering off if tethered to the leash of the dog. The dog helps to ground the child into the current environment.

Many readers might find mixed opinions on the process, but it is an invaluable help as it keeps such individuals in touch with the outside world. Shopping, taking a walk in the park, or going to a restaurant – all tasks that prove too challenging are easily taken care of.

ALSO READ: Pets of Autism

How Service Dogs can help Adults with Autism?

For autistic adults, service dogs build a vital bridge that gets them into independent living. However, this is far more uncommon than that with kids and families.

For adults, it is bit more difficult finding the right service dog and may be also more expensive process. But it’s worth the time and the expense. It is recommended that trainers actively engage adults with autism when a dog is receiving its training; it helps to create the vital bond between the two and also strengthen it.

How to Pick an Autism Service Dog?

Though preferences run high for Labradors and Golden Retrievers for their intelligence and lack of unnecessary aggression, but any intelligent canine species, with agility in adapting to situations will do.

The autism service dogs are trained as per the needs of an autistic individual. It must also be kept in minds that since certain autistic people are sensitive to loud noises, rough textures, etc, providers must always take care to ensure that the dog doesn’t have a coarse/rough/wiry coat or barking tendencies.

However, the most important characteristic should always be intelligence and grasping power. It must also be social and must be able to adapt quickly to different environments. There is a huge difference between keeping a dog as a pet and as a service animal.

It’s also important that the dog has high tolerance and enjoys being handled and fondled, as children often interact with dogs by leaning-in close or tugging their ears or tail.

Therapeutic Benefits of Autism Service Dogs

Therapeutic benefits range over a vast area as any dog-lover should know. The dogs calm you down, centre your feelings and make companionship more emotional, thus taking it much higher than with humans.

All these translate into becoming life-changing physical, intellectual and emotional support for an autistic individual.

Unlike humans, dog are completely nonjudgmental and unintimidating, providing only unconditional love. For people affected with autism, these assistance dogs can transform a life of isolation into a life of healthy engagements.

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