Updated: Jul 22
There is growing awareness of the benefits dogs can bring to children and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Autistic children and adults often struggle to communicate or express their feelings in a way others understand.
Around 1.1% of the UK population (which is more than 1 in 100 people) are thought to have an Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis
Finding ways to mitigate their condition and enable them to thrive is a priority for parents and individuals alike.
The everyday practice of teamwork and collaboration that is difficult to find in other relationships provides a regular and reliable source of control and accomplishment, being heard and valued, all of which reduce anxiety and help promote resilience.
Individuals are affected differently by autism but many children will have a limited sense of danger or the consequence of their actions. Many autistic children also have a tendency to bolt from their caregivers which is not only puts them into potentially dangerous situations, but is also a constant concern for their caregivers.
Specially trained dogs can help in many ways and provide both physical and emotional support to children and adults.
Benefits can include:
Reduced stress for family members
Promote positive changes in behaviour
Provide comfort when upset
Reduced behavioural outbursts
Provide safety and security, allowing them to access public places
Enable their confidence to grow, knowing they have their dog supporting them
Provides a source of control and accomplishment
To assist with anxiety and bolting behaviours, the child and their caregiver can both be connected to the dog using a harness and a double-lead so the child can walk closely to the dog and gain security from them. Dogs can also be trained to stay still if the child tries to bolt and prevent them from running off into danger. (This isn't suitable for all teams, so it's worth discussing this option with your trainer)
Alongside this, there are other areas dogs can assist with:
Interrupting repetitive behaviour
Helping a child or adult to cope in unfamiliar or stressful environments
Offering deep pressure therapy
Interrupting anxiety or panic attacks
Anxiety is commonly seen in young people with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis.
They have to make sense of a world that may be hard for them to understand, to deal with sensory overload, environments that may not meet their needs and navigate sometimes confusing and unpredictable social situations.
Having a support dog gives them a sense of responsibility that comes from caring for and training their own dog helps to rebalance power in a world so alien and out of their control.
Training an Autism Support Dog
With lengthy waiting lists for dogs trained through charities, many people are looking at training their own dogs. If you are considering this route for a dog to support an autistic child, or indeed yourself, there are many factors to think about.
It’s not a decision to be taken lightly or an impulse purchase of a puppy to train, because in order to train a successful autism dog, you need to choose the right puppy, as well as be dedicated to their ongoing training.
Balancing the care of an autistic child, while also training a new dog can be incredibly challenging and it’s important to consider the time it takes before a dog is ready to be a fully-fledged assistance dog.
Training a dog is an ongoing process, it doesn’t happen overnight and there are often setbacks along the way. This means you need to be willing and able to put time and effort into training your dog
Assistance Dog charities are able to pair people with ready-trained dogs because of the time they have put into them, they could take 18months to 2 years before the dog is ready to be qualified. These are also puppies specially bred or selected for the role, making them ideal candidates
If you’re training your own dog, you have to expect the same timeline, or even longer, before your dog is fully ready to assist your child
Puppies aren’t born as blank slates or ready-made assistance dogs, they need to be taught the behaviours you require and general good manners to make them suitable for assisting a child
Some dogs will naturally be more suited to this role and training will be smoother, while others may never be suitable no matter how much training you do with them
Positive socialisation is a key foundation for a suitable assistance dog, carefully exposing a puppy to a range of environments and situations is a time-consuming process, which ideally should be prioritised in their first 16 weeks of life
The Right Dog
You should consider many factors, like the size of the dog, whether a big dog or small dog is more suitable to your child’s needs, how much exercise they need, how ‘trainable’ they are, how they may be perceived in public situations (choosing a suitable breed is undeniably important)
It’s vital to have a suitable dog otherwise you could spend years trying to mould a dog into something they will never be right for
For some people, choosing a stable adult dog will be better than a puppy, but this depends on what you need from the dog and whether you can find the right adult dog
Assistance dogs will be placed in challenging environments and expected to perform tasks and roles under high levels of distraction, they need to be able to cope confidently with this
They need a stable temperament and an ability to remain relaxed in all situations they are exposed to
Not all dogs will be capable of this, and if a dog is worried, fearful, or over-excited by different environments or situations then expecting them to assist a person would be unfair
Assistance dogs are likely to be working around members of the public so they must be trustworthy, safe, and happy in the presence of unfamiliar people
They should also be able to work without drawing attention, for example, without barking or reacting negatively to situations. A good assistance dog will be able to quietly and calmly assist and cause little to no impact on those around them
If you already have a dog and want to train them to assist you or your child, it’s important to think about what elements you can work through with them and which ones will limit their abilities as an assistance dog. Every dog is different, so while one dog may be capable of learning to offer support to a child experiencing a panic attack, another may never be able to cope with this pressure.
Behaviours or reactions can be changed to some extent but whether that’s enough for your dog’s role is an important consideration.
Trying to transform a very nervous dog into one confident enough to assist in busy environments, is likely to be an unrealistic goal.
With any dog, we are always working within some limits, set by their genetics and their past experiences, meaning not all dogs will have the traits required for the role.
Autism support dogs need to be particularly capable of remaining calm in difficult situations, it takes a very stable dog to be able to support a child who is having a meltdown or trying to bolt from a situation. Your dog needs to be able to offer help or remain neutral in these moments, and you need to think about the reality of training for these situations. It’s not easy to train a dog while supporting a child through a challenging situation.
The importance of support when training your own dog
Training a dog, especially for a specific role, is often a complicated process with moments of great success and moments of frustration or disappointment. Having support from an experienced trainer is really essential, they can provide support in training specific tasks, but they can also be a listening ear when things are more challenging.
It can’t be underestimated how important it is to have the guidance from others when training your own dog. They will be able to recognise signs that your dog may be struggling with the training and offer guidance on how to improve things.
On a practical level, managing an autistic child and training your dog at the same time isn’t always possible, especially when you’re at the stage of training your dog in more ‘real-life’ scenarios.
At this point, having an extra pair of hands, ideally from an experienced trainer, can help avoid negative situations and ensure everyone, including your dog, are feeling confident and relaxed.
Alongside this, having a community of people also training their own assistance dogs can provide you with reassurance and support from others who have been through a similar process.
While everyone’s journeys with their dogs will be unique to them, there will be similar challenges and successes, so knowing you can share with others, receive their feedback and hear their experiences can make a huge difference.
Written by Naomi White
If you or your child has autism or you're on the list for a diagnosis, you can sign up to the Adolescent Dogs Assistance Dog Programme. You'll gain instant access to over 400 video tutorials, Live trainer support 7 days a week, weekly Live Q&A's with the Head Trainer, Webinars and step by step tutorials to teach tasks specific to your needs. There are no waiting lists and the programme is open to all.
We work closely with charities such as PTSDUK, DefineFine and Spectrum, donating 20% of their membership signups back to their charities for fundraising. If you know of any Charities wanting to get involved with our affiliate scheme, please get in touch.