Best Dog for a Child With Autism

The connection of a dog can help a child with autism build confidence

Two brothers playing with their dog on the bed

 Sally Anscombe / Getty Images

Dogs can be wonderful pets and companions for children with autism. Dogs provide the kind of unconditional companionship and friendship that can help a child with autism build social skills and confidence. There is no one breed of dog that will bond best with an autistic child, but no matter what breed you choose, you'll need to consider your child’s sensitivities and family dynamics before bringing home a new "member of the family." 

Why a Dog Might Be a Great Option for Your Autistic Child

One study showed the benefits that interacting with a pet can have for many children with autism. Published in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing, the study questioned parents of children who had autism about how their children interacted with dogs. Of the approximately two-thirds of the families who owned a dog, 94 percent said their child had bonded strongly with the animal. Even seven of the 10 families who did not have a dog said their child enjoyed interacting with dogs. 

Previous research involving children with autism found that having a family pet from a young age tended to improve their social skills. Additional research has shown that social skills in children who have autism temporarily improve after even when they have played with an animal (such as a guinea pig) for just a short time.​

Questions to Ask Before Committing to a Dog

Parents should consider their children’s sensitivities carefully when choosing a pet to ensure a good match, researchers say. For example, a child who is easily agitated or is sensitive to noise may not do well with a dog that is extremely active or one that barks a lot. It's also important to think through some of these questions:

  • Will this be a family dog or a therapy dog? Therapy dogs require different living conditions and behavioral training from family dogs.
  • Who will be responsible for caring for the dog? If you'd like your child with autism to take some responsibility, be sure the dog's size and temperament match your child's physical and emotional skills.
  • Will the dog need a lot of extra care and love? Autistic children may have difficulty empathizing with the "special needs" of a rescue pup that has been abused or neglected.
  • What will we do if our child and the dog don't click? If you're buying a dog to help your child find social and emotional support and build skills, what will you do if the relationship between child and dog isn't ideal? If you feel you'd rather return the dog and try again than keep the dog and hope for the best, you'll want to be sure that option is available.

Selecting the Right Dog for Your Child

While there is no single breed of dog that is the "right match" for a child with autism, Dr. Francois Martin, who has studied using animals to help children with neurological disorders express their emotions, says: "What I want is a dog who is very forgiving, people-oriented, and if a person is behaving strangely, the dog will look at the therapist and say, 'That kid is behaving strangely, but it's all right with me.'" When considering a dog, look for:

  • A calm, sociable temperament. The purpose of including a dog in an autistic child's life is to provide the child with a friend whom he can trust and with whom she can interact socially.
  • Trainability and intelligence. Not only will you want to train your dog to behave appropriately with your child, but you'll also want to teach your child to give the dog commands that will be obeyed.
  • Energy levels. A high energy dog may not be a good match for a child with autism. Autistic children often have low muscle tone and relatively low physical stamina and endurance.

Most support and therapy dogs are larger breeds; some of the most popular dogs for children with autism include golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, standard poodles, Staffordshire bull terriers, and German shepherds. Some therapy sites recommend very large gentle dogs such as Great Pyrenees, Newfoundlands, and Saint Bernards—but of course, such large, furry pets take a lot of care and money.

Dog Training for Therapy Dogs

Even an ordinary family pet can be a great asset to a child with autism. There is, however, a growing interest in emotional support and therapy dogs for children with autism.

Training therapy dogs for children who have autism is still relatively new. As a result, organizations and trainers around the country have developed various training programs and philosophies that are quite different. The North Star Foundation in Connecticut, for example, prefers to train puppies as therapy dogs for autistic children. 

There are a growing number of organizations that train and provide therapy dogs for autistic children including the North Star Foundation and Oregon-based Autism Service Dogs of America (ASDA). The Psychiatric Service Dog Society is a nonprofit organization in Virginia that is dedicated to "responsible Psychiatric Service Dog education, advocacy, research, and training facilitation." 

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