Service Dog Placements for Children with Autism

Creating a service dog placement for a child with autism differs from creating placements between service dogs and physically challenged adults. From puppy hood on, the philosophy of training the dog and the timetable for placement has to be tailored to the unique needs of the child and move in tandem with the dog's natural development.

In traditional service animal programs, dogs are placed with human partners when the dogs are approximately two years of age, and they arrive fully trained. New owners learn handling skills within the space of two or three weeks. At North Star, we create placements when the dog is still a puppy, in order to facilitate the strongest bond possible, and to insure the dog's training matches the child's needs.

When the North Star Foundation places a dog with a child with autism, our primary emphasis is on appropriate early socialization. This means the puppy is subjected to experiences that simulate the experience he/she will have with the child. Our strongest commitment is to finding the optimal fit between child and dog. We put considerable energy into teaching the child to interact with the dog in ways that enhance bonding. Because the quality of the relationship matters more than any other variable, it is essential that early interactions are supervised, more so than might be necessary for an adult with mobility problems.

Supervision is essential to creating a placement that is safe and effective. The early pairing of puppy and child has risks. What if the temperament of the puppy does not unfold in the way we envisioned? What if the child does not "take to" the dog? The same difficulties with communication that children with autism experience with people can exist with dogs. Dogs take their cues from humans regarding how relationships are structured; training is just a concentrated form of communication about what behaviors we want to encourage or discourage. If a child with autism does not make it clear to his/her puppy that playful nips hurt, then the puppy will naturally nip more. It is important for the caretakers of any child to understand that their role is to ensure that the relationship between child and puppy is consistently gentle and mutually enjoyable.

I often refer applicants to Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) ( and other traditional programs, though there are clear drawbacks to bypassing puppy hood and placing a child with autism with an older dog instead. Some families need the certainty of a thoroughly trained adult dog. Sometimes their children have visual, hearing or mobility impairments and need a dog with a high level of intensive and task-specific training. However, dogs in traditional programs are in training for a longer period of time and the kenneling and training drive up the cost of the placement.

The larger issue, from the perspective of a family with an autistic child, is that delayed placement has the potential to influence success of bonding between the child and the dog. By the age of two years, a dog's temperament and abilities are well established. What if the dog has not had exposure during the early months to the child in question, or the specific challenges they present? With no experience in how to interpret autistic behaviors, the dog may react unpredictably. Children with autism or other developmental disabilities often display unusual behavior-sometimes they throw loud tantrums or fail to grant the appropriate body space that we unconsciously and consistently grant each other. Dogs depend greatly on nonverbal communication, and are apt to be uncomfortable with violation of "personal space."

For example, a number of years ago, we received a two-year-old Golden Retriever, Madison, from CCI, to help our son with autism. I decided to take Madison to a rehabilitation center for a pet therapy visit. A woman with Alzheimer's disease approached, waving her arms and speaking loudly in gibberish; Madison growled menacingly and we retreated hastily. Here was a dog that had a very gentle temperament and was extremely well-trained, but he lacked exposure to the profile of a typical Alzheimer's patient and interpreted her behavior as threatening. It occurred to me that ideally a dog should be raised from puppy hood with exposure to his/her eventual partner or at least with exposure to the typical behavior patterns of this future partner.

Madison came to us equipped with the skills of a working mobility assist dog, and although his temperament proved exactly what we needed to help our son, many of Madison's skills were useless to us. Although Madison formed a bond with my son Danny and the rest of us, right from the start his canine heart clearly belonged to my husband, Ron. The puppy-raiser who cared for him during his first eighteen months of life was a middle-aged gentleman with no family. The powerful and early bond which formed between the two provided the template for Madison's future relationships, and now when Ron leaves on his occasional business trips our entire family must support Madison emotionally. Ideally, this is the type of deep bond a service dog should form with his child partner, not the father of the child. I believe the earlier the working pair bond, the greater the chance for achieving a deep relationship. It is out of these convictions that North Star Foundation was formed and I set out to breed, socialize, and train service dogs for children in nontraditional ways.

Careful breeding and educated puppy selection go a long way toward reducing training time and increasing safety, as does establishing optimal behavioral patterns right from the start. Interestingly, there are desired qualities in a North Star dog that cannot be trained; they instead are recognized, carefully nurtured, and supported. A concept Guiding Eyes for the Blind refers to as "intelligent disobedience" is valued in any service dog for both adults and children. If a blind person approached an open manhole, it is desirable that the dog ignore the command to "Go forward" and instead lie down in front of his/her partner. This quality of understanding needed to interpret their environment and protect his or her partner is largely found in the dog's genes, but equally high emphasis must be placed on early nurturing and training of the puppies. It is the interplay between nature and nurture that matters the most and this is not a static process. A North Star dog's job description is created and refined in the many interactions between dog and child and family.

We approach a North Star puppy's education very seriously during its first six months of life; we then transfer this to the families of our clients, who become partners in training the dog to meet their child's specific needs. North Star staff remains available for support, with frequent visits, telephone calls, and e-mail. Families are asked to enroll in a training class that emphasizes positive reinforcement techniques to deal with the adolescent dog's desire to push the limits he or she has previously accepted with good-natured puppy charm.

One of the first puppies we placed at North Star (named, appropriately enough, Star) went to two brothers on the autism spectrum. The younger brother, David, was a wanderer. This was alarming, as this family lived on the edge of dozens of acres of woods. In creating this placement we incorporated games such as hide and seek into this puppy's training in preparation for the day that Star's search and rescue skills might need to be tapped. So far, this has not happened, but twice Star has alerted the family to David's wanderings by barking frantically and circling him. We did not train this dog to do this; I believe by growing up with David and his family, Star learned the importance of keeping David within sight. Surprising benefits accrue and dovetail when a service dog grows up in his or her permanent home, with access to the particular child's needs.

All of North Star's placements are family-based, with every member given a special job to perform with their North Star dog. The job assignments are created with bonding issues uppermost in mind. For example, to facilitate bonding, jobs such as feeding will be given to the child with a challenge, but we also try to draw the rest of the siblings into the placement with jobs such as walking or grooming. The Golden Retrievers we use at North Star are from a genetic line known for its sociability within a breed known for its social nature, and they are determined to form individual bonds with every member of their immediate family.

I have witnessed ways that service dogs have a therapeutic effect that occur without training. These effects are heightened in a child with autism because of the powerful nature of communication between the dog and the child. The nonverbal avenue of interacting with a dog is an important advantage here, as sometimes spoken language can get in the way of successfully communicating with an autistic child. For a child with autism who has had an exhausting day struggling to communicate in a manner that is foreign to him, spending time with his dog is a nice way to structure critical down time, which can greatly reduce the frequencies of meltdowns. The concept of "time out" with a service dog reliably holding a down-stay to provide comfort and support can be seen as a positive way that a child can have the rough edges of his or her day smoothed over.

A service dog can also act as a bridge between the activities of a therapy session and a child's home program, providing familiar cues and structure to pragmatic language. This helps to generalize language learned in a speech therapy session, and to translate it into conversation spoken in the larger world beyond the walls of the therapy room. Children with autism often have great difficulty in generalizing learned speech to new situations and people. This is due to their overly selective attention and tendency to respond to only a limited number of cues. Using a service dog as a tool for teaching pragmatic language at home and in the community can be as simple as rehearsing stock responses to the fairly predictable questions people are likely to ask when they see a well-trained dog wearing a saddle with a patch that reads "Please Ask to Pet Me." I recently flew to Ohio with a puppy with such a saddle, and I was stopped over and over again during the course of my travels to answer the same few questions. As children with autism tend to be dependent on verbal cues provided by others, this positive and predictable social response is a valuable tool to help with speech within natural settings in the home as well as the outside community. People who may have shied away from the responsibility of starting a conversation with your child, as well as keeping it in motion, often relax and rise to the challenge when a dog is available to help structure the questions and comments.

Allowing the child with autism to watch the clicker training of a puppy can be a path to grasping verbal language through observation. Some older children with autism get quite skilled at clicker training, especially if they are familiar with the premise of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). To be on the teaching side of this equation is refreshing to them, and dogs trained to respond to children's commands and to regard them as leaders helps to raise a child's self-esteem. Training also enriches the bond between child and dog.

At North Star, we also train dogs to respond to hand signs, thereby increasing the communication between child and service dog if a child does not yet speak verbally. Dogs pay great attention to our body language, and are quick to learn and respond to hand signals. Service dogs can also be used to help meet other therapeutic goals, such as those established in occupational or physical therapy. Examining the reactions of the child to the young dog are key components in determining how this dog can help the child. Many of North Star's placements happen after observation of a specific dog/child pair.

Although service dog placements have been helping children with social and emotional goals for over a decade, the concept of training a dog in a three-way partnership with a child with a developmental disability is somewhat unusual. I personally witness the benefits of this approach on a daily basis, but I also greatly respect the potential dangers that exist when a child with autism is paired with a young animal. I place great faith in the dogs I breed and raise, based on the sound principles of behavioral genetics and positive training techniques. I also trust the parents of the child in question to understand how to facilitate the bond and properly supervise the interactions between the dog and their child. I only make about ten North Star placements per year, as any more than this proves too much of a drain on my family and myself.

The silver lining to this work is watching the educational and emotional value families derive from their child's relationship with a service dog. Engaging a child to take an active and nurturing role in raising a puppy is an ideal way to teach him/her empathy. Unfortunately, some children are not good candidates for placements involving a young dog, such as children who are aggressive or rough. Some children with poor impulse control may still be appropriate candidates for an older, more stable dog with the necessary guidance and supervision, but a young and vulnerable dog would obviously not be appropriate in this case. Children who tend to lash out physically are not good candidates for a service dog, at least not until these tendencies are brought under strict control.

North Star dogs pay attention to the subtle cues every member of the family gives out, and they behave as if it is their job to try to help their family out in any way they can to be healthy and happy. The ability of dogs to read human social cues is capitalized upon in North Star's breeding program, along with the loyalty and intelligence highly prized by the hunters who influenced the creation of the water dogs, such as Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers.

Parental involvement is crucial in a three-way placement of a child and a young dog or puppy, and although time-consuming, this job is not unpleasant. On the contrary, combining a well-bred and well-trained puppy or dog makes time spent working on a child's social, emotional, and educational goals more focused and fun. Attention paid when the child and the pup are together must be consistent and educated, but the parents I have come to know pay this type of attention to their children already. These parents also come to crave the emotional support their North Star dog gives them so freely. It is part of the joy of my job to watch these parents begin to understand that they get to love this dog as much as their children, and to reap the benefits of having a service dog in the family.

The right dog can be a valuable companion in the life of any child, regardless of the challenges he or she must face. The wise parent asks for assistance in selecting the most appropriate puppy, learning positive training methods, and facilitating the bond that develops between companion dogs and children.

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