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Service Dogs for Autism / Questions to Ask When Selecting a Service Dog - featured May 6, 2011

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Service Dogs and Autism / Questions to Ask When Selecting a Service Dog

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2011. All Rights Reserved.

“Autism & Asperger’s: The Way I See It,” by Temple Grandin, Ph.D., is an exclusive column in every issue of the Autism Asperger’s Digest. This article appears in the March/April 2011 issue and is reprinted by permission of the editor.

Editor's Note: This article was written for parents of children with Autism and Asperger's Syndrome. We reprint it here so that you might share it with the families of your kiddos.

As I travel around the country and talk with parents of individuals with ASD, more of them are asking whether they should get a service dog for their child with autism. The use of service, or assistance, dogs with spectrum children is gaining popularity. However, this is a complicated issue. Unlike other autism interventions that can be more easily started and stopped, embarking on the journey to find an appropriate service dog for a child is a long-term commitment on the part of the entire family. A service dog is much more than a well-trained pet.

The first question I ask is, “Does your child like dogs?” If the family does not already own a dog, I suggest they see how their child will react to a friend’s friendly dog first. There are three kinds of reactions the child can have. The first is an almost magical connection with dogs. The child and the dog are best buddies. They love being together. The second type of reaction is a child who may be initially hesitant but gets to really like dogs. The child should be carefully introduced to a calm, friendly dog. The third type of reaction is avoidance or fear. Often the child who avoids dogs has a sensory issue. For instance, a child with sensitive hearing may be afraid of the dog’s bark because it hurts his ears.

When I was a small child, the sound of the school bell hurt my ears like a dentist drill hitting a nerve. To a child with severe sound sensitivity, a dog may be perceived as a dangerous unpredictable thing that can make a hurtful sound at any moment. For some individuals, the smell of a dog may be overpowering, although keeping the dog clean may alleviate this issue.

I also ask parents if they are willing and able to make the time, financial, and emotional commitment of having a service dog. This is a family affair, with everyone in the family involved. Waiting lists can be two years or more, and fees for the trained dog can run $10,000 or more initially, and several thousand dollars each year thereafter.

Types of Service Dogs
There are three basic types of service dogs that are most likely to be used with individuals with autism. They are therapy dogs, a companion dog, or a safety dog. A therapy dog is owned by a teacher or therapist and is used during lessons to facilitate learning. A companion dog lives with the family and spends most of its day interacting with the individual with autism. The dog can assist with social, emotional, behavioral and sensory challenges in the child. These dogs also serve as a “social ice breaker” because other people are often attracted to a dog and will interact more readily with the child. Some individuals with autism really open up and interact with a dog. Therapy dogs and companion service dogs must have basic obedience training plus training for public access. Companion dogs usually receive additional training that focuses specifically on the needs of the child for whom it has been matched. For more information on training standards, visit the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners’ website,

The third type of service dog is the safety dog. These are highly trained dogs used with individuals with severe autism who tend to run off. The child is tethered to the dog and the dog becomes a protector of sorts for the child. Safety dogs have to be used carefully to avoid stressing the dog. These animals need time off to play and just be a dog. A dog’s mind has categories of behavior. He is trained that when the service dog vest is on, he is working. When he is not working, the vest is taken off.

Dogs that are chosen to be assistance/service dogs should be calm, friendly, and show absolutely no signs of aggression toward strange people. They have to be trained for good manners in public such as not jumping on or sniffing people, and not barking. This level of basic training is the absolute minimum any therapy or companion service dogs should obtain; advanced training to become familiar with the behaviors of people with ASD is preferable. (See companion article online at, “Questions to Ask When Selecting a Service Dog Provider.”)

There are many different groups who train companion and service dogs. One of the best ways to find a respectable source is through referrals from satisfied people who have service dogs.

Further Reading
Arsenault, V.P. (2010). Effects of service dogs on salivary cortisol secretion in autistic children, Psychoneuroendrocrinology, 35:1187-1193.
Burrows, K.E., Adams, C.L. and Millman, S.T. (2008). Factors affecting behavior and welfare of service dogs for children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 11:42-62.
Burrows, K.E., Adams, C.L. and Spiers, J. (2008). Sentinels of safety: Service dogs ensure safety and enhance freedom and well being for families of autistic children. Quality Health Research, 18:1642-1649.
Grandin, T. (2011). The roles animals can play with individuals with autism. In: Peggy McCardle et al. (editors) Animals in our Lives, Brooks Publishing, Baltimore, MD.
Gross, P.D. (2005). The Golden Bridge: A guide to assistance dogs for children challenged by autism and other developmental disorders. Purdue University Press, West Lafayette, Indiana.
Pavlides, M. (2008). Animal Assisted Interactions, Jessica Kingsley, London, UK.

Find More Information Questions to Ask When Selecting a Service Dog Provider
(This is an online companion article to” Service Dogs and Autism” by Temple Grandin, March/April 2011 issue of Autism Asperger’s Digest.)

The idea is intriguing – would my child with ASD benefit from having a service dog? You’ve read Temple’s article, done some research on your own, perhaps even identified a provider or two that seem credible and are aligned with your family’s needs.

But, you’re just not sure if it’s a good fit for your child, your family, and your future. We’ve assembled the following list of relevant questions to ask when talking with a service dog provider. Listen to the answers you receive, and more importantly, trust your gut reaction. This is no small decision, so take your time and weigh the facts alongside your “inner knowing” when deciding how to proceed.
  • What breed of dogs do you use for autism assistance dogs?
  • Can we (the family) assist in selecting the dog for our child?
  • Do you start the process with puppies, or are your placements fully grown dogs?
  • If puppies: what will happen if my child doesn’t “take” to the dog? What if the dog’s maturing personality becomes mismatched to my child?
  • If an adult dog (two years or older): has the dog been trained specifically with ASD behaviors in mind, or has training been generalized to people with disabilities instead?
  • Describe the training program the dog receives: how long does it last, and to what extent is our family involved?
  • Does the training address socialization issues only, or are the dogs trained to handle run away situations, sensory sensitivities, behavioral challenges, emergency situations, etc?
  • Will the dog be trained with my child’s specific needs/behaviors in mind?
  • At what age will the dog come into our home?
  • Has/will the dog be trained to respond to hand signals in addition to verbal commands? (Important if the child is nonverbal or has limited verbal skills.)
  • How many dog placements with children with autism has your organization completed?
  • How successful were these placements over time?
  • How much family training with the dog is required/provided to us? Does this include training with the spectrum child, or just with parents?
  • Is there any “refresher” training provided at a future date?
  • What type of ongoing communication with our family will be included once the dog is placed?
  • Do you have references of families of children with ASD who own one of your dogs?
  • What is your application procedure?
  • Is there a wait list, and if so, how long?
  • What are your fees for an assistance dog?
  • Is there any financial assistance available for this?
  • Do you provide a payment plan over time?
  • What type of expenses will our family incur over time in keeping the dog?

Featured Organization/Contributor: Autism Asperger's Digest

We thank Autism Asperger’s Digest for allowing us to reprint their copyrighted article.

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Tags: Animal Assisted Therapy Article Newsletter 6 May 2011