Northern Beaches Mums Group
Northern Beaches Mums Group

How Therapy Dogs Can Help Children with Autism

Whether best friends, loyal companions or members of our family, dogs quickly get to hold a special place in our hearts. This is why therapy dogs are so effective in helping with emotional and mental disorders, especially among children.

Animal-assisted therapy that includes a purposefully trained dog (therapy dog) has a function to help people emotionally, though physical benefits can result in boosting morale for physical therapy and encouraging self-care tasks.

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) suffer from a developmental brain disorder that hinders their ability to communicate and interact socially. ASDs range from the severe cases of what we refer to as simply Autism, to the relatively mild form called Asperger’s syndrome.

Dogs love patterns, structure, repetition, and sequences, which is what autistic children need and react well to in cognitive therapy. Although getting a therapy dog is not the single solution to ASD treatment, there are ways in which befriending a furry friend can help your ASD child deal with everyday struggles.

Controlling emotional meltdowns

Animal-assisted therapy can help in managing behavioural problems and emotional outbursts that are common in ASD children. The dog is trained to react to restlessness, agitation and anxiety by licking or leaning on the child, showing affection and comforting. Therapy dogs are also taught to lie on the child and apply deep pressure to reduce stress and self-stimulating behaviours. Engaging in play or caressing a dog may shift the child’s focus and divert attention away from negative behavior.

Improved communication skills

There still isn?t enough research that directly connects the therapeutic effects of dogs and improvement in social and communicational skills in autistic children. Nevertheless, studies done on the topic suggest that there may be a correlation between overall skill development and the animal-assisted therapy. Namely, structurally simple actions like walking a dog, playing fetch, stroking or brushing help ASD children in interpretation of communication clues that are much simpler, repetitive and predictable, unlike verbal. This kind of social interaction improves self-confidence in children as it represents the first step towards more challenging self-expression.

Providing safety

Apart from emotional support and stability, a therapy dog can assist in keeping an autistic child safe and sound. In cases when the ASD child requires constant attention and physical presence, a therapy dog can bring relief to both the child and family. 

Parents? anxiety over their children’s safety and wellbeing can, in the long run, lead to social isolation and obsessive worrying, which is by no means beneficial for an autistic child. Therefore, a service dog can make a difference for the entire family.

Lifelong companionship

ASD can be detrimental to a child?s social life. Many autistic kids have problems socializing and finding friends at school. On top of that, bullying, teasing and belittling are not rare in the early years of schooling.

A dog?s love is unconditional and infinite. Their ability to bond quickly plays a crucial role in befriending an autistic child. A trustworthy, devoted relationship helps children open up, gain self-esteem and fill the void or feelings of loneliness without judgement. It doesn’t have to be a therapy dog at all, every pooch can be affectionate and social if treated well, so simply adopting or getting a family dog may change your child?s life for good.

Emotional health

Autistic children can learn a great deal about discipline, devotion and patience if given a therapy dog. Keeping a dog requires constant care and takes up a lot of time, however, it’s a multidirectional relationship that can give your child a sense of achievement and fulfilment. ASD children have a hard time expressing their feelings and devoting for a long time to a single cause. If exposed to dog care from the earliest age, a child can be taught the importance of perseverance and responsibility. Furthermore, these canines are taught to enjoy being touched, cuddled, and given huge, tight squeezes from children – a perfect therapy for releasing tension and emotional arousal.

Cognitive improvement

Sensory play ideas are a great way to stimulate your child’s cognitive development and a therapy dog can be of assistance.

A therapy dog is taught to play a number of games that fight sensory processing dysfunction in autistic children. The games promote deep pressure, proprioception, vestibular, fine motor skills, and speech activities. Games such as wrestling, hide and seek, repeating commands (high 5, sit, roll etc.) engage a child’s visual, auditory and tactile perception, thus helping in overall cognitive development.

Whether you get a companion dog, service dog or therapy dog, selecting the right animal means finding a highly individual match with the child?s needs as well as the family. Animal-assisted therapy is proving to be a successful aid in conventional therapy, especially due to the inconsistency in symptoms and behavioural patterns among ASD cases. This means that although you may not be able to completely understand (and help) your autistic child in the beginning, a therapy dog may assist your child in gaining self-confidence and will to engage in communication and eventually learn how to express their needs and wishes.

David Barnes is a sports enthusiast who loves spending time with his kids, learning to cook new meals, writing for Totally Goldens, and enjoying a healthy lifestyle. Most of all, he enjoys the fresh air in the sunrise