Best Pet Dog for a Child With Autism

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

Mom hugging autistic son and dog
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What is the best dog for a child with autism? While there is no one perfect answer, one researcher says no matter what, parents need to consider the child’s sensitivities and family dynamics when choosing a dog for their child.

Kids, in general, can struggle with fitting in and making friends. For children with autism, the challenges can be even more difficult. For many of these kids, a dog can make a significant difference in their life. Dogs won't judge a child and the unconditional companionship and friendship can help a child with autism build confidence. 

Pets and Children With Autism

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.​

The Need for Careful Consideration

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.

Dog Training for Therapy Dogs

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. 

Do some breeds make better therapy dogs for children who have autism? Not according to Dr. Francois Martin, who has studied using animals to help children with neurological disorders express their emotions. According to Dr. Martin, "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.'"

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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