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Service dogs for children and adults with autism

By Marilyn Miller

Kai's mom watches as her autistic son leans against his new service dog, Tornado. (

Kai's mom watches as her autistic son leans against his new service dog, Tornado. (

Autism is a disorder — actually a large spectrum of slightly different disorders — for which there is no diagnostic test, no known cause, and no treatment or cure. People on the spectrum generally have difficulty in communication and social interactions, exhibit repetitive behaviors and obsessions, and are easily overwhelmed and even pained by the ordinary stimuli of daily life. They have difficulty interpreting other people’s tone of voice, body language, or facial expressions. Even small changes in daily routine, for example, a favorite shirt being unavailable for the time it takes to wash and dry it, can cause tremendous emotional reactions.

Caring for a child or adult who falls somewhere on the autism spectrum is a moment to moment challenge. Every person is different and there are so few givens. You love them to infinity and more, but the exhaustion and frustration are real. Fortunately, they are now training service dogs to help people living with autism.

To begin with, the dog adds structure to the day. It must be fed, watered, brushed, taken out to potty, and exercised at regular, dependable times every day, even on the inevitable more difficult days. This kind of structure is essential to the person, helping them feeling safe and centered. Moreover, the dog is a friend who never fails. It demands nothing. It gives everything. The dog is a good social icebreaker and also a reliable social protector.

Jonny and his girl Xena

Jonny and his girl Xena

Here are just some of the benefits that have been identified by research. People with autism benefit from having a service dog in the following ways and more:

  • The dog has an overall calming effect. The value of this cannot be over-emphasized. Being able to stay calm and centered can make the difference between having a decent day and having a string of exceptionally difficult days or even weeks until calm is found again.
  • The dog can be trained to find a person who is lost. (People with autism tend not to identify potentially dangerous situations correctly, and wander off readily.)
  • The dog can be trained to stay in one spot to prevent the person from wandering off.
  • If the person’s repetitive behavior can lead to self-harm, such as repeatedly striking him/herself in the head, the dog can be taught to interrupt these behaviors so that the person focuses on petting or otherwise interacting with the dog.
  • People with autism sleep longer and more soundly when they have a dog.
  • Because the dog needs verbal direction, the person’s speech and use of complete sentences improves.

People on the spectrum often have excellent memories and often are skilled in music, the arts, and math. They often have wizard computer skills from toddler age. They have much to contribute. And has they have for thousands of years, dogs are helping humans, asking no more in return than a place in the den and a friendly pat.

Here are some links to videos or Facebook pages so you can see the daily small miracles these dogs are performing.


  • Journal of Pediatric Nursing. 2014 Mar-Apr;29(2):114-23. doi: 10.1016/j.pedn.2013.09.005. Epub 2013 Oct 16.
  • Grandgeorge M, et al. (2012) Does Pet Arrival Trigger Prosocial Behaviors in Individuals with autism? PLoS ONE 7(8): e41739. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0041739
  • O’Haire, M. E., et al. (2013). Social Behaviors Increase in Children with Autism in the Presence of Animals Compared to Toys. PLoS ONE, 8(2), e57010.

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