Kids with Autism and Assistance Dogs

January 31, 2008


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.


7 Responses to “Kids with Autism and Assistance Dogs”

  1. Hi Kellie,

    I read your post and want to agree with many points you make…when partnering children with autism, it is very important to craft a three or four way partnership to include the parent(s)on the ground floor of training and to ensure that correct supervision of all interactions between the child and dog are set up and maintained. Also important is to screen the children that are to receive the dogs carefully, both to determine their desire for a dog as well as their capacity to be consistently gentle with them.

    However, I disagree that there is no real need for an assistance dog for a high functioning child with autism…to grow up in our current society with high functioning autism can be a lonely and daunting thing…a well bred and well trained canine companion can do wonders for a child’s battered sense of self esteem at the end of a long mainstreamed day, and this goal alone is worth the time and effort it takes to breed, socialize and train this assistance dog to be a partner to this child. I do find that many children on the spectrum have an unusual interest in dogs, and that within certain lines of specific breeds a canine temperament exists that allows a deep and rewarding partnership with an assistance dog to unfold when carefully monitored and guided by kind, dog savvy adults.

    Interestingly, one of the most valuable benefits from an assistance dog partnership is the power of the dog to help typically developing people and peers of the child overcome their fear of differences to allow them to get to know the little nonconformist at the other end of the leash. In our society, behaving differently can be looked down upon, and children with autism may be regarded with suspicion or scorn in certain groups…I have found that having a well bred, well trained and lovely North Star dog by a child’s side can help them to be better accepted and understood, which is very important. Social, or pragmatic, language can also be greatly improved when an assistance dog invites others to approach a child to ask a similiar question (“Is that your dog?” or “What’s your dog’s name?” are the most common queries) that it is valuable to have a child with autism field.

    At North Star, we don’t place the puppy into the child’s home at a young age unless the circumstances permit…many children on the autism spectrum are actually very gentle with their dogs, although they may pet against the grain of the fur or put delicate fingers into the dog’s mouth…intelligent selection of North Star dogs, along with our breeding program that focuses on creating temperaments conducive to working with children, is very important, as is a program of intense and specific socialization of the dog. This is the reason we begin our placement as early as possible in the life of a North Star pup in terms of supervised visits, although the average age a North Star dog enters a child’s home is 7 or 8 months, with weekly training sessions and unlimited e-mail support and guidance from us…I do agree that solid manners training is key here, and that much of our benefit accrue naturally from a dog bred and socialized to have good instincts with children and parents motivated to learn how to use the tool of an assistance dogs safely and effectively.

    Regarding return policies, I agree a family needs to be able to throw in the towel if, despite everyone’s best efforts, things just don’t work out. This canine partnership is not for every child on the spectrum, but when it is appropriate the rewards are simply priceless. Here is a You Tube page where you can see this for yourself:

    As education is an important part of our mission I have written a book about assistance dogs for children with developmental differences, THE GOLDEN BRIDGE (Purdue University Press; July 2006) that can be ordered for the best price from (All proceed from the sale of this book go to support our placements in progress). I also have produced a DVD (“Home Before Dark”) that I send out free of charge to anyone who requests it that is meant to be a companion to this book.

    I am happy to answer any lingering questions you might have about our work with children on the autism spectrum…

    Kind regards,

    Patty Dobbs Gross
    Executive Director
    North Star Foundation
    20 Deerfield Lane
    Storrs, CT 06268
    “We help children find their way.”

  2. MuttMaven Says:

    I am a person who worked for North Star last year. I do not believe, based on the work that I did and the placement of the dog with which I worked, that North Star and Ms. Gross selected, trained or placed the dog responsibly and appropriately.

    Ms. Snider voices appropriately here the exact concerns that were raised for me when I worked for North Star and the dog in question (a year of age Standard Poodle), who in my opinion as an experienced trainer and animal science major was not appropriate in temperament for the ‘position’ of dog nanny in a household with several autistic children. Ms. Snider could not have better voiced the very concerns that were raised for me when I worked in this situation for North Star.

    When I voiced my reasonable concerns about the dog and the placement, Ms. Gross fired me and appointed a different trainer to the family. Incidentally, the owner of the dog and the person with whom I worked with the North Star dog has been referring me clients since then.

    I am sure that Ms. Gross will respond by saying that the dog is doing great in the home. Knowing dogs as I do, I would doubt that this could be true.

  3. This poster (“MuttMaven”) is a trainer I hired to work with a family whose dog, the standard poodle she mentions, is doing beautifully in a home with five children, only one of whom is on the autism spectrum. The fact that “MuttMaven” lied about this to make her post seem valid is just par for her shady course.

    She wasn’t fired, just not asked to serve past the few initial sessions we partnered with her; she took such great offense at not being asked to continue with us(we had out reasons, which I will not go into on this forum, but clearly it is our right not to work with someone who makes us uncomfortable),that she pressed false charges with a watchdog agency, which were not pursued due to their capricious nature, slandered me on a message board at meant to review my book, which were wiped clean by the kind folk at who recognized their slanderous nature, and has been slandering us ever since on any on line forum she finds, as evidenced by this post.

    You say that this standard poodle has an inappropriate temperament for the work we slated her to do, MuttMaven, but time has proven you wrong. And, just to set the record straight, we don’t place “dog nannys” (this is a gross misunderstanding of our work.)

    I will not respond to any further posts on this thread/forum, but am quite sure I’ll meet up with you somewhere else online in the future, where you’ll try again to punish me because your delicate ego was wounded.

    We park our egos at the door when we do our work, and the fact that you couldn’t is part of the reason we elected not to continue working with you.

    I will continue to defend myself against your harrassment, one post at a time.

    Kind regards,

    Patty Dobbs Gross
    Executive Director
    North Star Foundation
    “We help children find their way.”

  4. BCassidy Says:

    I’m going to ignore the bickering between Ms. Gross and the so-called “trainer” who worked for her and stick to the original post.

    I sought out a service dog for my profoundly-autistic daughter, now almost 10 years old, in 2002. We have had our ups and downs with our experience both of having a service dog for an autistic child as well as defending my daughter’s legal rights to public access with her service animal. Some of the most difficult challenges we’ve had to face are with the very agencies who proclaim their expertise in training a dog for an autistic child only to find out afterwards that they were merely trying to profit from the now well-known epidemic of autism.

    While I do find that Ms. Snider addressed perfectly valid concerns, I also feel that this is a very personal and private decision that should be made by the family in a true partnership with a professional dog trainer. While it is accurate that no two autistic children are alike, it is also imperative that the individual’s needs are taken into consideration as well as the temperament of a potential match of a service animal.

    I agree that no dog should be left alone to supervise any child or adult whose disability is such that they are unable to make safety decisions for themselves. My daughter’s service dog was trained not only to work as a team with my daughter but it was mandatory that an adult be part of that team. While she is in school, that responsibility falls to the staff or aide who is working with her that day. When she is out of school, the responsibility falls back on my shoulders. This is for the safety of our daughter while still giving her the chance to experience a sense of independence as well as to develop a bond with her service dog. Our hopes is that now she has established a solid relationship with her dog, it will be easier for her to develop similar relationships with successor dogs in her future.

    I strongly disagree with the statement that autistic children, “often do not care about animals”. This is an ignorant and hurtful statement to be made of any person with autism. Just because these children show their emotions in a different way does not mean they are incapable of emotion. And while many autistic children “may not like being touched by animals”, that doesn’t mean that a service animal cannot still provide assistance to the child or that the child cannot learn to tolerate the sensory stimuli of a dog. Dogs can be taught not to lick or to seek out affection unless it is asked for – as our daughter’s dog has.

    I want to stress that my daughter was terrified of her dog when I first brought it home, however it took only a few weeks for her to calm down and accept the dogs presence. Five years later, my daughter refuses to go to sleep without having that same dog in the room with her – on the bed. She plays with her dog, uses the dog as a pillow or footstool while she reads her books or plays her video games and in her own way, shows that she loves her dog. She now interacts with people without prompts from an adult because the dog encourages her to do so. Her service dog has provided her with emotional support when we travel to unfamiliar places or have an alteration in her daily routines. The dog also aides in providing additional safety when we travel outside of our home as my daughter is tethered to her dog.

    I have to say that our family’s experience, we have had to endure the most hurtful and despicable encounters by ignorant humans because my daughter has a disability. Her dog has been unwelcome in public places mostly because she does not have a visible disability. Her dog has been labeled as a “therapy dog” and has been denied access to go to school with my her because few people are educated in what the term “service dog” means and of the ADA laws surrounding access of service animals. But of the most disturbing experiences we’ve had are that people, particularly dog trainers who are unfamiliar with ASD and what a dog can really do for ASD kids, are far too quick to judge the ability my daughter has at expressing affection towards her dog (or anyone for that matter) and then accuse that somehow the dog must be suffering because of it.

    Autistic children are capable of adapting to their environments and they are more than capable of learning, just as society is, that a service dog can improve their lives. Every parent who considers getting a dog for their child should pay careful attention to their gut feeling. How much time it may take for their child to adapt? Have they outweighed all the benefits and the risks of fighting that battle for their child? Have they considered what they will do should the match be unsuccessful or if things change over time where the dog cannot be with that child?

    For us, having a service dog has made a profound impact for our daughter and our family and I would make the same decision if I had the choice to make over again.

  5. SunRose Says:

    As I am presently training a puppy to be my daughter’s service dog, I was really moved by this post. Although she hasn’t yet (we only picked up the dog 14 days ago) wanted to pet the dog, she is talking to others about her (the dog), and spontaneously commented yesterday on what a lovely dog she is.

    The puppy has come to church with us already, and sits very peacefully, alleviating my daughter’s anxiety when she is out. Everyone in church is in love with the puppy as she is a baby labradoodle and quite small and beautiful.

    Even at two and 1/2 months the puppy has already learned and responds joyfully to commands. What fun this is and how grateful I am to the friend who bought her for my daughter’s birthday.

    Even our other dog and the cats are interested in the puppy!

  6. SunRose Says:

    As I am presently training a puppy to be my daughter’s service dog, I was really moved by this post. Although she hasn’t yet (we only picked up the dog 14 days ago) wanted to pet the dog, she is talking to others about her (the dog), and spontaneously commented yesterday on what a lovely dog she is.

    The puppy has come to church with us already, and sits very peacefully, alleviating my daughter’s anxiety when she is out. Everyone in church is in love with the puppy as she is a baby labradoodle and quite small and beautiful.

    Even at two and 1/2 months the puppy has already learned and responds joyfully to commands. What fun this is and how grateful I am to the friend who bought her for my daughter’s birthday.

    Even our other dog and the cats are interested in the puppy!

    And I am looking forward to receiving Patty’s book.

  7. Leanna Says:

    I am a mother of a 6 year old severely autistic and mentally retarded little girl who is partnered with a 2 year old owner trained lab mix Assistance Dog.

    We still have more training to do, as I don’t think the training of a service animal should ever “end” we think of new ways to help Jenna (the SD) work with Serenity on a regular basis.

    Jenna, has allowed us to have a “normal” life with our daughter and our 3 year old son (who has just been diagnosed as having his own delays though a full diagnosis has not yet been given). As a mother, going anywhere with Serenity without the dog gives me a lot of anxiety. I have seen my daughter have embarrassing meltdowns and become aggressive to complete strangers. However, these incidents have decreased 90% if we go with the dog vs the rare occasion we go without (usually because we dropped the dog off for a vet or grooming visit).

    Serenity, doesn’t seem all that interested in Jenna (in petting her) however, Jenna seeks her out and gives her attention that distracts Serenity in anxiety causing situations (waiting for almost anything especially at restaurants where Jenna will rest her head in Serenity’s lap and nudge her tummy making her giggle and pet the dog)

    Away from home, they are tethered, I know many people view this as the dog being nothing more than a babysitter. Part of the service a service dog does is to give the person a more “normal” life by enabling them to do things normal children would do. A “normal” 6 year old will not take off running out the door of the grocery store as the mother pays the cashier, they do not have melt downs at the lights and sounds inside a store. Jenna prevents Serenity from bolting by blocking and keeps her from focusing and becoming increasingly anxious by things that most people can normally ignore.

    If people could see the miracle that these dogs perform, they would understand. However, most people only see a short snapshot of the whole picture. You really need to see the child with and without the dog, to appreciate their service. My pediatrician, was skeptical, and though Serenity is still resistant with having her ears looked at, she allows everything else to happen at her appointments as long as the dog is there. She truly is Serene with the dog.

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