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Autism Series Part VIII: treating Autism with therapy pets

Autism Series Part VIII: treating Autism with therapy pets

​It’s no surprise to see dogs bond with children who have disabilities. There has always been a strong dog/children connection and children with ASD are no different. As an ASD parent, you may have noticed that your child is happier, more friendly and behaves better when pets are around. Research suggests that this is not a coincidence.

Initial results are very encouraging and research suggests that treating ASD symptoms through specialized pet therapy has been very effective for most who have tried it. Parents and trained professionals alike reported improved cognition, increased compassion, and higher frequency of pro-social behaviors.

If you haven’t already done so, it may be time to consider a service animal and pet therapy.

Meet Samson

Samson is an amazing service dog who has a beautiful relationship with his owner. You may have seen this viral YouTube video last month of a brave woman with ASD.

It’s fascinating and heart warming to watch Samson as he protects his owner from self-harming behaviors. Samson is a special service dog who is specifically trained to sense his owner’s anger, frustration and more importantly depressive moods. Recent research hypothesize that improvements can occur in ASD patients’ social and cognitive functioning when they experience pet therapy.

Parents who use service dogs and pet therapy are ecstatic about the changes that their children have made and they further report their children having improved focus, heightened awareness of their surroundings and making significant breakthroughs in communication and compassion.

How does pet therapy work?

Past research has shown that pets can provide neuro-typical children with emotional support and that family pets often help facilitate social interaction.

ASD parents often describe their children as “having barriers” or “having their walls up” . Simply put, ASD is a challenging neuro-developmental disorder. Children with ASD often struggle to communicate feelings, have a sensitivity to physical touch and may have a lack of social awareness and compassion for others.

That concept is difficult for parents and family members because as humans, we naturally want to build relationships through talking, hugging, holding hands etc. (The exact methods that are most challenging for ASD children)

Pet therapy is a great method for breaking down these walls and barriers. Sometimes progress is slow and the bond isn’t formed overnight as both dog and child approach one another with caution. Other times parents report the challenging walls of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are melted immediately by a dogs loyalty, trust and playful nature.

The unconditional love and unwavering patience of man’s best friend deescalates the stressful event.

But what’s happening behind the scenes is a dog’s constant awareness of their client’s emotional state. They are trained to “alert” to signs of emotional distress by paying close attention to their client’s vocal inflections, heart rate, temperature and even sweat.

As you can see in the above video, the dog owner is in emotional distress. The dog “alerts”, physically stops the owner form hurting herself, helps her to the floor, and then sits with her through the emotional episode.

How do I get started and how much does it cost?

There are three common ways to incorporate pets into your child’s ASD treatment regimen.

First, you can simply buy a pet and incur the normal costs of having a family pet in your home. Adding a family dog to your home, has proven to be effective in helping children with ASD improve socially and cognitively. These costs are minimal and have strong results if the right one is chosen and a dog/child bond is formed.

Second, you can incorporate a dog into mental health therapy. Surprisingly, there are several providers across the country that allow patients to bring their pets into individual mental health sessions. More surprisingly, there are some providers that even provide the pets!

One specific provider, Ann Meas LPC the director of a practice in Boulder Colorado provides pets for her clients and states

“Animals can act as a buffer or a diversion when it’s difficult to talk about feelings. Animals can be very good listeners and they never judge.”

Each therapists sets their own fees based on the level of their experience and expertise. (Average fees range from $75-$100 per hour). At the time of your initial appointment you will be advised of the therapist’s regular fee.)

Third,you can buy a therapy pet that has been specifically trained (like Samson) by medical and behavioral professionals to assist your child with his or her specific need. These pets are extremely intelligent, extremely helpful and can be extremely expensive. These pets come home with you and really become a part of your family.

The most effective species in this category has proven to be dogs and they are not cheap. An average issue specific trained dog costs almost $20,000

They are specifically trained to sense anger, frustration, depression, and even chemical imbalances. Once these emotions are detected, the animals are trained to deescalate feelings of frustration through patience, love, and protecting them from hurting themselves.

The good news is that Medicaid has started to assist families in covering some of the financial obligations inherent with pet therapy. During the past decade, several large insurance companies have made the commitment to cover pet therapy expenses.

What does the research say?

No surprise here. The research indicates that more research is needed. ☺

However, several studies support the concept that animals can be particularly effective with children who have ASD and confirm behavioral improvement in 1 or more ASD symptoms through consistent pet therapy techniques.

I know diving into research isn’t for everyone. So here is a quick summary of those studies and the positive benefits of pet therapy. The list is very encouraging. (For those who do want to dive in, I’ve attached the research links below)

Canine Therapy

O’Haire et al reported that the most commonly used and effective animals used for pet therapies were dogs and horses.

According to a study by Berry and Borgi et al, confirmed that introduction of a dog to children with ASD can result in a reduction of stress, anxiety, and irritation and can also promote a more relaxed environment for those children.

Grandgeorge et al conducted a study to determine if a therapy dog would be effective in improving pro-social behavior in children with ASD. The study included three sample groups of children with ASD; 1) those currently with dogs (from birth of child), 2) those without dogs, 3) and children newly introduced to dogs.

“Researchers found that the pro-social behavior between those families that had never owned a dog and those that had always owned a dog was approximately the same. Meanwhile, the group in which a dog was newly introduced showed a significant improvement in pro-social behavior.”

Western Journal of Nursing Research looked at the effects of interacting with dogs on children with autism spectrum disorders. This study showed that children exposed to dogs in therapy had increased moods and enjoyed longer periods of play.

Equine Therapy

A study by Ward et al investigated the social and sensory benefits that therapeutic horseback riding could have on children with ASD. The study showed positive effects on participants’ abilities to communicate and a reduction in the severity of their ASD as measured by the autism index

In a prospective trial conducted by Kern et al on the use of equine therapy for ASD, similar feedback was received from the study’s participants. A high level of satisfaction and an increase in quality of life were reported by both children with ASD and their parents.

Furthermore, the positive impact of the equine program was observed by children’s therapists, teachers and family members. All immediate participants noticed an improvement in behavior and ability to demonstrate compassion.

For example, research has shown that such children tend to prefer pictures of animals to those of humans and are less responsive to the sound of the human voice as opposed to other stimuli.

Even in a less traditional form of animal-assisted therapy for ASD that involved patients’ interactions with dolphins, families participating in the study noted that the experience was highly enjoyable and that the therapy had a positive effect on their children.

All of the studies above showed improvements in 1 or more categories related to ASD and its symptoms.

Service Dogs for Autism TreatmentAnimals Act as Social TeachersHuman/Animal BondAnimals Improve Pro-Social Behaviors in ASD Children

Making a commitment

Parents report happier and better behaved children and research suggests that there are several positive cognitive and emotional reasons for exploring service dogs and pet therapy.

If you are ready to make the commitment of bringing a pet into your home, talk with your child’s doctor. There may be pet therapy groups or horseback-riding groups in your area that your doctor can refer you to.

For more information, contact an organization such as Autism Service Dogs of America or Paws 4 Autism

Have fun, good luck and let us know how it goes! For those of you who have therapy pets, we would love to hear your story!




Autism series part I: Demystifying the Autism Diagnosis

Autism series part II: what to expect after an official ASD diagnosis

Autism series part III: Guide to choosing an ASD treatment option for your child

Autism series part IV: four natural ways to treat Autism with medication and natural supplements.

Autism series part V: sometimes kids just blow up

Autism series part VI: “Her Excellency” the routine

Autism series part VII: The argument against Gluten-free diets

Autism series part VIII: Treating Autism with therapy pets

Autism series part IX: Reaching through the barriers of Autism with communication

Autism series part X: Creating the right treatment plan for your child