03 June 2013

Can Therapy Dogs Help Kids With Autism?

ASDA (Autism Service Dogs of America) was founded in 2002 by Priscilla Taylor. Incorporating her love of dogs and her background as a special education teacher, she formed this non-profit, community-based organization to aid special children. While many service dog agencies existed to meet diverse needs, none provided specially trained dogs for children with autism. Ms. Taylor, Founder and Director of ASDA, received some of her education at Assistance Dog Institute, the only institution of higher education for dog studies in the world. The ASDA was not part of this study, but I felt it should be included to give more meaning.

While ASDA may be a great organization, their advocacy of having autism service dogs for parents to enjoy an evening out while leaving the child at home tethered to a service dog seems like cruel and unusual punishment and an abandonment of their responsibility as parents. I can only hope that they hired a baby sitter as well. If not then I feel there is something wrong happening here.

Service dogs for autism provide a physical and emotional anchor for children with autism. When out in the community, a service dog can increase safety and make families feel secure. In many cases, the service dog accompanies the child to school, where its calming presence can minimize and often eliminate emotional outbursts, enabling the child to participate in his or her school day. Transitioning among school day activities is eased and the service dog provides a focus through which the child can interact with other children. This helps increase the opportunity for the child to develop social and language skills.

Even though the above is promoted and stated by ASDA, I know what has happened around the country with other service dogs. I am wondering if an adult is not required for supervision of the dog in the classroom and at the school. Many school districts have prevented service dogs in the school until the age of 14 to 16 unless accompanied by an adult.

I will give ASDA credit for stating that not every child with autism will benefit from a service dog. The do say that they screen and evaluate each situation to have a goal that ensures a successful match of the child, the family, and the dog. Because of the successes that have been achieved, demand for specialized service dogs for autism is growing rapidly. Under the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA), there are no exceptions to where a service dog is allowed; all public places must allow access. It is important however that the child’s school be cooperative. ASDA will not place dogs with children whose school will not allow a service dog. As least they did acknowledge this.

I can be appreciative of the fact that the ASDA wants dogs that have reached adulthood and be fully trained first. It is also important to remember that while the dog will probably become a trusted member or your family, its purpose is as a service animal, not a pet. I do like that they have a socialization and training program from eight weeks of age, and then graduate to the advanced training at approximately 18 weeks of age.

From my experience of being with a trainer of mobility dogs, I know how important the advanced training is and most of the steps involved. The dogs accompany the trainer to various locations, schools, classrooms, and public places. During this time the dogs are being trained in public access skills, socialization skills, and other skills they will need as a service dog for the special challenges of autism. Upon passing the public access test, the dogs will be matched with a child and family from the waiting list.

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