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Using service dogs to help kids with autism spectrum disorder

Children with disabilities present a unique challenge to parents. And kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) present even more unique challenges. When children have ASD, they do not connect well with their environment. Social relationships are challenged and safety is often a huge concern.

Children with ASD often appear to live in their own world. Some kids participate in ritualistic and repetitive behaviors, sometimes for hours at a time. They may spin a coin on the floor, flap their hands in their face or filter sand through their fingers. Many children with this disability have a strong need for a structured, routine environment because change creates feelings of fear and/or anxiety. Some children even exhibit serious behavioral changes, such as self-injury.

Not only do service dogs provide companionship and comfort, but they can be trained to interrupt children with ASD from engaging in these repetitive behaviors and redirect their attention elsewhere. Additionally, tethering the dog and the child can provide parents with a sense of security that the child will not leave the dog’s side and wander away.


Do recognize how service dogs provide companionship

A service dog can help provide families with a tool to assist in caring for a child with ASD. Research indicates that when a child with ASD is partnered with a service dog, the child will seek out the dog for companionship, comfort and confiding in ways never seen by family members.

Service dogs often provide companionship and a sense of security for kids. They know that the dog is going to be there and comfort them when they need it. Having the dog sleep with kids often creates a sense of security and thus, children are more willing to sleep alone--and through the night. Some parents report that their children display a greater sensitivity towards the needs and feelings of the dog.

Do acknowledge how service dogs can stop repetitive behaviors

The behavior that some kids engage in is used to trigger a behavior in the dog. For example, the behaviors of children who jump and flap their hands is sometimes used as a hand signal for dogs to lay their nose or foot on the child, gently nudging him/her to stop the repetitive behavior—even for a few minutes.

This is a game for the dog. As long as she receives an occasional reward at various intervals, she finds nudging the child over and over again to be quite fun. This is a job that allows dogs to do what they do best. In nudging the child, there comes a possibility that the child may decide that petting the dog, playing fetch or simply cuddling is more important than the need to engage in repetitive behaviors.

Do consider using a service dog to stop wandering

Another behavior common to kids with ASD is the tendency to wander away. Parents often refer to their children as Houdinis, stating they are able to escape from even the most secured environment. Children with ASD often don't respond to their names consistently—if they respond at all. They rarely understand the many dangers in their environment, such as an approaching car, a stranger with ill intentions, or an aggressive dog separated from the child by nothing more than a easily-opened gate.

Many parents report that their greatest fear centers around their child becoming lost or darting into the path of an oncoming car. Consequently, many families tend to resort to the safety and security of their home to prevent their child from becoming lost in a public arena.

However, by tethering a service dog to a child, parents can create a much-needed sense of security. Thus, the family can engage in public activities safely, the parent maintains control of the dog, and the dog helps control the child’s need to wander. Parents maintain the child's safety by holding a leash attached to the dog to easily stop the dog, using basic obedience commands. In this manner, parents may engage in such tasks as writing a check for groceries, without fearing their child will disappear. Parents can ask the dog to either "stop" momentarily or "stop and sit/down" when more time is needed.

Do be aware of the various types of service dogs

Dogs are trained in different ways, based on the various needs of the individual. The different types of service dogs include:

  • Mobility/Balance Assistance Dogs:
    These dogs can pull a wheelchair, assist someone with walking by balancing or acting as a counterbalance, help with picking things up, open and close doors, tethering with child or assist with other activities of daily living. These dogs are Public Access Certified and ADA-protected Service Dogs.
  • Social Service Dogs:
    These dogs assist children who fear public/social situations or kids who tend to isolate themselves from society. The dogs help keep the child focused and provide security to the child. Public Access Certified and ADA-protected Service Dogs.
  • Ssig Dog/Behavioral Distraction Dogs:
    These dogs are trained to assist a child diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder, such as Phelan–McDermid Syndrome, Prader-Willi, Angelman or any other disorder on the spectrum.

The dogs provide children with behavioral distraction. They help the child find independence, confidence and the ability to perform activities of daily living. Dogs are trained to help the child prioritize necessary information, and they assist the child in handling situations, which are over-stimulating and can become confusing. Public Access Certified and ADA protected Service Dogs.

  • Multipurpose Service Dogs:
    These dogs are trained for several specific tasks, which are designed for the child’s unique needs and are often combinations of several trained skills. Public Access Certified and ADA protected Service Dogs.
  • Companion Dogs:
    These dogs are trained to provide comfort to children who need a friend. While highly trained, they are not task-oriented. These dogs also provide companionship to those who have experienced traumatic situations.
  • PTSD /Post Traumatic Stress:
    Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can occur after a traumatic event. These dogs provide a sense of security, calming effects and physical exercise that can make a positive difference. They are trained to perform tasks that mitigate their handler's disability. Public Access Certified and ADA protected Service Dogs.
  • Therapy/ Facility Dogs:
    These dogs are trained to work with a volunteer or professional, who is trained by a program. The work of a therapy/facility dog can include visitations or professional therapy in one or more locations. These dogs are trained to bring comfort, enjoyment and engage in the ongoing therapy of a child.


Do not forget to do your research regarding eligibility

It is important to recognize who is eligible to apply for a service dog through TSDI. Any child and family meeting the following criteria is eligible:

  • The person must have a need, a diagnosis and a prescription from a physician
  • Families must be able to assume full financial responsibility for the dog after placement, including proper care, feeding, housing and veterinary care. Annual dog maintenance costs are estimated to be $2,000 or more.
  • Families must be able to take complete physical responsibility for a dog.
  • Families must demonstrate that a service dog will assist the child and family in daily living tasks, and will help the child maintain or increase independence.
  • Families must be able to attend required training sessions, as well as follow-up training.
  • The home environment of applicant families must be stable, without any major changes.
  • Families must commit to regularly scheduled follow-up interviews and provide all required follow-up documentation.

Do not be scared away by the costs

Many organizations require donations of $15,000 to $27,000 for a service dog. However, TSDI believes that dogs and their partner families can be trained for a much lower cost. Most families are asked to donate or fundraise $6,000 to $10,000 for most service dogs. This money is used to offset the costs of breeding, raising and training the dogs, as well as the ongoing support provided to each family after a dog is placed. Once a family is accepted into the program, guidance for fundraising efforts is provided.

Do not overlook the need to be patient

Once a family is accepted into the program, 10 to 14 months may be required to select and properly train both the puppy and family. This process can sometimes take more time—depending on how quickly a proper puppy/family match is made, how well training progresses and how quickly a family is able to raise donations.

Do not expect to receive a newborn puppy

At 8 weeks of age, puppies are placed in the homes of volunteer puppy raisers, who take the puppies to obedience classes, provide basic training and socialize them through public outings. At approximately 5 to 6 months of age, each puppy is teamed with a professional instructor for advanced service dog training, which lasts from 6 to 12 months.

Service dogs are typically breeds that historically have proven to be the most successful in service work. Therefore, Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers are most often chosen for service dog work. However, some mixed breeds are also used.

The average working life of a service dog is 7 to 10 years. Once a service dog is retired, he or she enjoys life as a cherished pet.

Jumping cartoon

Service dogs can help children and their families--not the disability. A service dog can be valuable medicine for a child with ASD. In a world that is frequently marked by criticism and loneliness, a service dog can be a faithful, loving companion.

More expert advice about Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

Photo Credits: © oksix -; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Melissa YetterFounder of The Service Dog Institute

Founded by Melissa Yetter in honor of her son, Sam Yetter ( Incorporated in South Carolina December 16, 2009 Non profit 501c3 status April 21, 2010 Mission: The Service Dog Institute (TSDI) is non-profit organizati...

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