Photo by Kellie Snider, Copyright 2008

Background Music: Got to Be More Careful

by John Cleary and the Absolute Monster.

I have become concerned about the recent trend to use dogs to “supervise” children with autism. Some people have stories about wonderful things that happened when children were paired with assistance dogs. This is great for them, but the experiences are not necessarily universal.

Because autism is a spectrum disorder and the abilities and skills of one person with autism may vary dramatically from those of another, there are some for whom a dog may be an excellent choice as a pet and companion, if the person is interested in having a dog. However, for many of these high functioning people, so long as autism is the only disability present, there is no real need for an assistance animal since they are capable of caring for themselves. These people should be included in deciding whether they will get a dog or not, and what kinds of training the dog will receive.

The children with autism that are given assistance dogs are often not capable of participating in the decision to get a dog, nor in the training of a dog. In some cases, through no fault of the child, the animal may be mistreated. This is not because the child is “bad”, of course, but only because he isn’t capable of providing the kinds of guidance and care a dog needs, and because he may not understand when the dog is being hurt. Despite the romantic notion that dogs understand that children with autism are different and remain gentle with them, it is not clear that this is true. Although there is an idea in the culture these days that dogs are a lot like people with autism, there is no evidence that this is true, either.

For children with autism the assistance dog is usually placed in the family when it is still a young puppy and the parents are responsible for most of his/her training. Unfortunately the parents of children with autism are often overwhelmed with the enormous responsibility of raising a child with autism and adding the responsibility of training a service dog is asking a lot of them, even if they are initially quite motivated to do it.

Perhaps a greater concern is that among the diagnostic symptoms of autism is an absence of social interest. In other words, people with autism may not read facial expressions or body language appropriately or at all. They often do not like being touched. They do not make eye contact or look directly at other people or animals. They may respond in abnormal or unusual, sometimes dangerous, ways to tastes, tactile stimuli (whether pain or seemingly mild sensations), sounds, smells, and visual stimuli. They often do not care about animals, and may not like being touched by animals.

Unless and until a child has exhibited a positive response to animals on multiple occasions, an assistance dog is not recommended. Animals may be used in various kinds of therapy, including behavioral treatment to help the child learn to tolerate animals, under supervision for limited periods of time. Often pairing children with autism with assistance dogs is done because it makes grown-ups who do not have autism feel good.

Last but not least, the life of an assistance dog is challenging. For most assistance dogs the positive relationship with his partner is what keeps him going. It is difficult to forge interpersonal relationships with children with autism. For the dog assisting a child with moderate to severe autism, sometimes this social reinforcement is not available. It is up to other family members to ensure that the dog’s needs are met and that nothing happens toward which he may respond with aggression or fear.

If a dog is to be placed in a family to help a child with autism, the parent must always be present and responsible for the dog during every interaction he has with the child. This is for the protection of the dog as well as of the child. It is an unfair and potentially tragic mistake to assume a dog can be a nanny or a supervisor for any child, especially one with autism. Likewise it is unfair to expect a child with autism to be responsible for the safety and well-being of an assistance animal.

If a parent of a child with autism wants to get a dog, that is great, but the adoption of a dog into any family must be taken seriously. Talk with others with similar experiences, determine what the dog’s needs are and how those will meld with those of the adoptive family. Will the family have the time, wherewithal and money to care for a dog in addition to a child with autism? Caring for a child with autism is expensive. Is there enough money in the family to care for a dog’s needs should he become ill or injured?

If a dog is to be placed with a family of a child with autism there should be a guaranteed return policy. No matter what, the family must be able to return the dog to his breeder or assistance dog group if it doesn’t work out for any reason.

It is simply not safe to entrust a child with autism to a dog’s care unless an adult is in charge and on task in overseeing all interactions. Nor is it safe to entrust a dog with a child with autism except under adult supervision. A dog adopted into the family must be trained, and assistance tasks may be helpful, but perhaps not as helpful as solid manners training.

Kellie Snider, BS, MS

Board Certified Associate Behavior Analyst

Speaking up for those who have no choice.



Background music:  I Can’t Get No Satisfaction… the Rolling Stones.  Some guys are working on my house and it is playing on their radio.   

I just unsubbed myself from a discussion group about canine aggression which I joined as a little experiment.  (Nah, I won’t say which one!) Over the two days on the list, someone came up with a problem with a young dog bugging an older dog and the older dog getting snarky in return.  My suggestion?  Management during meal times.  Teach the dogs what to do instead of snarking at each other.  I didn’t respond to their recommendations to correct, I just added Manage and Teach.  There was no serious aggression yet- it was all managable without punishing either dog.  (I know a little something about canine aggression.) 

I posted a couple of times before getting a public rebuke from a list moderator saying that what I was saying was “rhetoric that doesn’t work” and referring to positive training as “the dark side”, while, out of the other side of her mouth, saying this was a list for trainers to talk openly about training without “fear of being unsubbed or worse”.  Yet they were making it clear right from the start that I was not free to suggest anything on that list that didn’t involve corrections.  I was being told that I should fear being unsubbed or worse.  (What’s worse in discussion group land?  Is she going to stalk me?  Geez.)

Talk openly, my eye.  It seems to be quite difficult for positive and correction-based trainers to speak openly together … even when we want to.  But I can understand.  On my own discussion list I will shut down conversations that get adversarial, so maybe that moderator had a history of such.  Not with me, though … she didn’t give me a chance.  She went into correction mode before she got to know me.  I realized I wasn’t going to learn anything there and opted to leave. 

Her response demonstrated a definite defensive posture she had obviously learned before I came along, and a clear over-reading of what I wrote. That’s sadly common.  I’m thinking it means too many positive trainers aren’t positive with their correction-based colleagues.  That’s something we should work on, but it’s hard when we’re being yelled at. 

From what the moderator wrote, the list assumes that positive training is nothing but clickers and treats for all problems.  There’s so much misinformation about it.  I was a handy target for whatever anger they’ve learned to have toward anyone working to effectively change animal behavior without causing them unnecessary pain and distress. 

There are those clicker trainers with limited repertoires that use nothing but clicks and treats, but as clicker trainers mature in the profession they learn a lot more. The clicker is a great teaching tool for many things. It’s not appropriate for everything.  When someone jumps right on that old “You can’t cure all ills with clickers!” bandwagon I know I’m dealing with someone who doesn’t know much about positive training. I hope if you’re reading this you’ll take that as a cue to study. 

Probably the best thing about the positive training world is that the members are largely devoted to learning, studying, even, in some cases going back to school and investing great amounts of time, money and effort to really know what they are talking about.  I have to be frank.  I don’t see this on the correction-based training side.  It’s their choice… but it means they can’t defend their practices.  They can only be defensive.

The biggest problem I have with the Anti-Positive side (or as a colleague of mine calls it, Negative Training) is that they often dismiss or even ridicule scientific research on behavior and training.  They aren’t educated in the sciences of behavior, they don’t know how learning works.  Yet they condemn positive trainers for following the science and training effectively without force and pain. 

What kind of world is it that promotes force and pain and won’t listen to alternatives?  Even when those alternatives are proven to be effective? 

Curiouser and Curiouser. 

We’re closing today’s blog with

Feelin’ Alright by Joe Cocker.  Playing on iTunes.   

Seems I’ve got to have a chance of scene…

Every night I have the strangest dream…

Imprisoned by the way it might have been…

Left here on my own, or so it seems…

I’ve got to leave before I start to scream…

Someone locked the door and turned the key.

Feelin’ Alright… not feeling that good myself… oh oh…

But in fact, I am feeling pretty good.  Next song up…

“This is the story of Minnie the Moocher…

She was a red hot hoochie coocher…

She was the roughest toughest friend,

But Minnie had a heart as big as a whale.”

… by Band From TV.  Check it out on iTunes.  A row of good tunes can turn around a bad mood.  “Hi de hi, hi de ho… told you before that I love you so…” 

Need a best friend?

January 7, 2008


Background Music:  I heard this song called “Let’s Go Trick or Treating Dressed Up Like Marylin Manson” by Self over the weekend.  It cracks me up and I can’t get it out of my head.  So even though only I can hear it, that’s what’s playing.

I visited Operation Kindness in Carrollton, Texas last week with Mike Glass, a dedicated and devoted volunteer there to work with one of their dogs.  The staff and volunteers really go the extra mile for their animals. While I was there I met a little dog named Buster.  A very small Chihuahua. Three pounds at 7 years old.  He is the cutest little thing you ever saw, and coming from someone who is really a big dog kind of person, that’s saying a lot.  Alas, he may have some trouble with a back leg.  Stay tuned… or better yet, visit Operation Kindness or a shelter in your area. If you are in the market for a pet you’re sure to find one.  If you’re full up, just ask and see what kind of help they could use.  D0nate your old towels  or a few bucks, clean cages, walk pooches… there is always something needing doing when caring for homeless animals.  Even campaigning for the adoption of a special animal is important work!  There is a guy in our town who goes to the Animal Control in our city and takes pictures of the pets and posts them on to make sure they get the widest exposure for adoption.  What’s your talent? 

So, we’ve had this guy painting our house and there are a couple of days left to go.  Then some flooring guys come in.  Wish us patience and luck.  So far it looks very good! 

Kellie Snider, MS