If you have a child who is on the autism spectrum, they might benefit from having a service dog. However, not just any dog will be suitable. Here are answers to some questions you might have about getting a support dog for your child.
How can a dog help my child?
Autism support dogs are trained to be constantly tethered to your child. When your child is with you at the grocery store or when your child goes to school, the dog goes with them. If your child has the tendency to melt down, run away, become immobile, or shout when over stimulated, the dog will sit down or lay down to prevent your child from bolting away. Dogs can alert you if your child is about to do something that would be harmful to themselves or to others.
These dogs can also help others see that your child has special needs. Sometimes, outsiders are not able to tell that anything is out of the ordinary, and they may place unrealistic expectations on your child. With a tethered service dog, people will instantly see that there is something particular about your child and prevent ignorant or overreaching strangers from causing harm. The companionship and physical pressure of sitting or lying down with the dog can also reduce stress.
How are support dogs trained?
The best support dogs come from a facility that specially selects or breeds dogs based on their intelligence, steadiness, and trainability. Dogs are trained in basic obedience and may accompany a seasoned support dog for initial guidance. Families that seek support dogs go and become paired with a dog. The family and the child build a relationship with the dog before it is placed in the home. A personalized trainer will accompany the dog after placement and initiate the tethering method that allows the dog to become familiar with your child's behavior and schedule. It takes some time for child and dog to become a team, but it is rewarding for many.
Can I just get a dog and train him myself?
Not all dogs are suitable for autism support. Also, it takes great skill and experience to train service animals, and this is especially true for animals that are expected to lend support for emotional and mental health. Because children with autism can be unpredictable, a regular puppy or dog from an animal shelter may become skittish or fearful of your child. This would actually be a danger to your family, as fearful dogs can become aggressive, especially if your child unintentionally harms the dog during a meltdown. It is best to find dogs that have been bred and professionally trained for the job.
What types of dogs are commonly used?
As you prepare to bring an animal into your home, you'll need to know what type of dog to prepare for. Emotional support dogs for autism need to have a steady, unflappable nature. They need to be adaptable, highly intelligent, and attuned to their surroundings. Some families like the idea of having a small dog for ease of travel and space requirements, but you should prepare your home for a larger dog -- small dogs are generally not suitable for autism service, so most professional services will not breed or train them. A large dog is better able, for example, to restrain a child from running away in the grocery store. A large, loud bark is more forceful and alerts others of potential needs.
Typical breeds that are used for autism service include golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, or Newfoundland labradors. These breeds are known for their gentleness, so don't expect to have a service dog double as a guard dog. Guard dogs like German shepherds are avoided for special needs service, as they can be aggressive with strangers and are more difficult to train. Service dogs can be watchful, but guarding is not a quality that is suitable for autism support.
For more information about getting a service dog for your child, contact a company like Next Generation Psychology.