Dog Ownership Benefits Families of Children with Autism

April 14, 2014 |

Many families face the decision of whether to get a dog. For families of children with autism, the decision can be even more challenging. Now, a University of Missouri researcher has studied dog ownership decisions in families of children with autism and found, regardless of whether they owned dogs, the parents reported the benefits of dog ownership included companionship, stress relief and opportunities for their children to learn responsibility.

“Children with autism spectrum disorders often struggle with interacting with others, which can make it difficult for them to form friendships,” said Gretchen Carlisle, a research fellow at the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI) in the MU College of Veterinary Medicine. “Children with autism may especially benefit from interacting with dogs, which can provide unconditional, nonjudgmental love and companionship to the children.”

Carlisle interviewed 70 parents of children with autism. Nearly two-thirds of the parents in the study owned dogs, and of those parents, 94 percent reported their children with autism were bonded to their dogs. Even in families without dogs, 70 percent of parents said their children with autism liked dogs. Many dog-owning parents said they specifically chose to get dogs because of the perceived benefits to their children with autism, Carlisle said.

“Dogs can help children with autism by acting as a social lubricant,” Carlisle said. “For example, children with autism may find it difficult to interact with other neighborhood children. If the children with autism invite their peers to play with their dogs, then the dogs can serve as bridges that help the children with autism communicate with their peers.”

Parents of children with autism should consider their children’s sensitivities carefully when choosing a dog in order to ensure a good match between pet and child, Carlisle said.


“Bringing a dog into any family is a big step, but for families of children with autism, getting a dog should be a decision that’s taken very seriously,” Carlisle said. “If a child with autism is sensitive to loud noises, choosing a dog that is likely to bark will not provide the best match for the child and the family. If the child has touch sensitivities, perhaps a dog with a softer coat, such as a poodle, would be better than a dog with a wiry or rough coat, such as a terrier.”

Carlisle recommends parents involve their children with autism when choosing a dog.

“Many children with autism know the qualities they want in a dog,” Carlisle said. “If parents could involve their kids in choosing dogs for their families, it may be more likely the children will have positive experiences with the animals when they are brought home.”

Although her study only addressed dog ownership among families affected by autism, Carlisle said dogs might not be the best pet for every child with autism.

“If you know one child with autism, you know one child with autism,” Carlisle said. “Dogs may be best for some families, although other pets such as cats, horses or rabbits might be better suited to other children with autism and their particular sensitivities and interests.”

“This research adds scientific credibility to the benefits of human-animal interaction,” said Rebecca Johnson, a professor at the MU College of Veterinary Medicine, director of ReCHAI, and the Millsap Professor of Gerontological Nursing in the MU Sinclair School of Nursing. “This research helps us understand the role of companion animals in improving the lives of children with autism and helps health professionals learn how to best guide families in choosing pets for their families.”

The study, “Pet Dog Ownership Decisions for Parents of Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder,” was published in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing earlier this year.

26 Responses to Dog Ownership Benefits Families of Children with Autism

  1. Autism Services November 11, 2014 at 1:00 am #

    Children with autism may especially benefit from interacting with dogs, which can provide unconditional, nonjudgmental love and companionship.Children with autism spectrum disorders often struggle with interacting with others, which can make it difficult for them to form friendships. children with autism may become attached to stuffed animals which provide them with comfort, animals can be sensitive to subtle changes in emotions in humans and react in a way which provides protection or support or comfort.

  2. Megan Smit May 4, 2014 at 7:11 am #

    I know some people with a son who has autism. He has this amazing bond with a horse. It’s unbelievable how this animal is able to bring out a total different side of him.

    I think that we underestimate animals and their abilities. It’s great to see that this information is being made public though. This way more people can benefit from animals and live life much more happier.

  3. Clarissa (u14244480) May 2, 2014 at 3:43 am #

    Upon reading this article, I decided to speak to some family friend of ours. They have a 21-year old autistic son. I asked them about their dog’s influence on their son. They didn’t buy the dog specifically for their son, but apparently they could see a major difference in his behavior which they did not expect (he became less aggressive, which is a great benefit to the family, as a 21-year old can be strong and hard to calm down once he is in that state).

    Apart from that, dogs mostly have a great influence on humans with their unconditional love and could change the way people behave in their normal day to day lives.

    I have to add that not all people like dogs. Could it be that some dogs might affect the household badly if for instance a family member does not get along with the dog? If the dog is with the child all the time then, isn’t it possible that it could have a negative impact on the autistic child?

  4. Eske (14061296) May 2, 2014 at 12:20 am #

    Absolutely true! As long as human kind can recall, a dog has been a man’s best friend.

    Most children with autism have no concept of personal safety and can wander outdoors into traffic. A child can be tethered from his harness to the dog’s harness to prevent the child from bolting in public. These dogs are trained specifically and the way the child is attached to the dog is also very specialized. Autism assistance dogs therefore contribute enormously to the safety of an autistic child.

    Parent’s are not always able to keep an eye on their child, but since a dog is a man’s best friend, a massive weight is removed from these parents’ shoulders!

  5. 14054672 May 1, 2014 at 10:02 am #

    I am truly impressed with the article, as well as the comments that followed.

    I read the article because dogs are apart of my everyday life, and they play a big role.

    The article carries a certain significance and I believe every family with an autistic child should have a look at the pros of getting a family dog. For these children, who may struggle socially, a dog seems like the perfect answer. The child can form an extremely strong friendship with the pet, positively influencing the child’s’ sense of trust and boosting self esteem. Although keeping a family pet may have a bigger impact on an autistic child, children without autism can also benefit from a furry friend.

    The article is very informative, I just think it is important to state the breeds of dogs that may be beneficial to these families. Golden retrievers immediately came to mind..

  6. Jason Bell (14036194) May 1, 2014 at 4:44 am #

    I agree completely with this article. You see all every household animal, especially dogs, wants is to be loved and they don’t care who you are or what you could have done. Animals will be able to help children, with autism and other social disorders, develop a certain confidence which can help them ,move on and not get overcome with fear. These children will be able to develop a certain trust with their animal of choice and you will see a bond that is hard to break between the two, but you will also see a child’s confidence and trust in the world grow.

  7. Caitlin Palm( 14043442) April 29, 2014 at 7:25 am #

    Autistic patients struggle to understand peer interaction and social reciprocity. It is incredible that dogs, being of a different species, are able to accomplish what a fellow human being could not and penetrate the communication barrier of autistic children. Furthermore, they assist the patient in interacting with his or her peers, helping the autistic child to function more easily in society. The stress relief received from the interaction with the dog also decreases the strain on the families of the autistic child. Therefore, I agree that this research proves that there are advantages to human animal interaction and I think this research should be extend to other behavioural disorders to determine if other patients with such disorders can also benefit from human animal interaction.

  8. u14229782 April 28, 2014 at 11:56 am #

    I completely agree with this article. I have seen the effect that animals have on autistic children first hand, and it is truly magical. All animals treat everyone the same, no matter your mental or physical capabilities. That is what makes pets ideal for these children. They require that feeling of acceptance that horses, cats, and especially dogs have to offer them. They are treated differently their whole lives, and pets give them the chance to be socially active without being judged. I personally love the idea, and even involving them in the process of choosing their pet is extremely beneficial, for both the dog and the child.

  9. sam April 27, 2014 at 1:33 am #

    “Dogs have given us their absolute all. We are the center of their universe. We are the focus of their love and faith and trust. They serve us in return for scraps. It is without a doubt the best deal man has ever made. ”

  10. u14039240 April 26, 2014 at 10:25 pm #

    Animals appear in the lives of 99% of people everyday whether it’s realized or not. Each animal tends to have a different role in different peoples lives. For example: Horses are extremely helpful when dealing with, mostly, children with physical disabilities such as paralyzation of his/her legs. When riding a horse it gives these children a new form of transportation that they themselves can control. Dogs have known to help humans in almost every field possible such as in war, in police stations, in keeping normal families safe and alert and now helping in the bridging of autistic children to the social world.

    According to this atricle, a specific child needs to be paired with a specific dog. This specifity includes the breed, age and the behaviour expected to arise from the dog. This I agree with as there are certain dogs that are more child friendly and patient that will be able to tolerate small children and older. Having a living thing that shows you love no matter who you are or what is mentally or physically wrong with you encourages positivity in ones life and for autistic children, this is what a dog will do for them.

  11. u14020620 April 26, 2014 at 12:06 am #

    A dog is that one creature who is always happy to see you, when your sad they want to console you and they sense things humans could never have dreamt of. For a autism child a dog can mean the world. I think the social interaction is crucial for the development of these children. Scientists once did a study by taking a dog to stay at an old-age home. The elders’days become interesting and full of laughter. That dog sensed when one of the elders’ emotional state took a dip, then he would go and console him/her by actions like licking and laying beside them the whole day long. This study shows that a dog isn’t just beneficial to autism children but for every human being on this planet. I know my dog usually brings a smile on my face when I see her. But the is the issue about abused dogs, horrible stories about people starving or leaving this wonderful creatures on the streets because they don’t have the financial benefits to care for these dogs. So please before anyone adopt a dog think about the fact that you would have to care for this dog for plus-minus 10-15 years. And if you decide to adopt one, care for it and cherish it, that dog will be your loyal companion for those 10-15 years!!

  12. u14055997 April 25, 2014 at 10:03 pm #

    I find the information regarding this topic to be very helpful in supporting parents with children and children that suffer from autism. The way a child communicates between the ages from birth until about 7 is all non-verbally therefore they depend on emotional interaction and affection from parents, family and friends to stimulate their brains in being accepted and loved. Reasearch has proven that the effect of the way a child is treated reflects in his/her life their entire lives through, even in people that dont have the disorder of autism. I really appreciate the research done about this topic to help and find an alternative way in improving the lives and futures of children with autism. In the information above it is stated that animals, whether they are cats, dogs or horses, help to fill the communication gap between people and children suffering with autism. As said by u14078849 more informative statistics would be helpful in ensuring that this is the best option to assist their needs.

  13. u14007097 April 22, 2014 at 5:58 am #

    I agree with the point raised by u14018269 concerning the fate of the dog if the child is unable to cope with having a pet or if the family chooses a dog that is not suited to the autistic child. Six to eight million unwanted animals end up in shelters in the United States of America each year and although some are adopted, millions remain in the shelters. Animal shelters tend to become very overcrowded and because the shelters cannot financially and/or physically support the pets that rely on their services, the shelters are forced to resort to euthanasia of some of the animals to keep numbers down. Often, healthy dogs are euthanized just because they are unwanted by families. Therefore, the issue of choosing a dog that is perfectly suited to the autistic child is of great importance. I strongly believe that the dog must choose the child as much as the child must choose the dog and it is therefore critical that the parents take the autistic child with them to pick out their new canine companion so that the families can find a dog that is right for them and the child as stated in the article. This will avoid the possibility of the dog ending up in a shelter and facing possible euthanasia.

  14. u14018269 April 22, 2014 at 3:07 am #

    I appreciate the information given by Michelle Adams regarding the autistic dog services as I was unaware such services existed. This reiterates once again the strong impact dogs can have on society and people struggling with disabilities. Further research into these services indicated that the dogs are trained to help the owner with sensory information processing such as obstacle avoidance and guide work, something people struggling with autism usually struggle with. It showed that these dogs are trained to respond to the owners change in behaviour for example, if the owner has poor balance or motor control the dog will act to counterbalance or brace the owner for stability. This is such a remarkable feat from animals who are considered by some as “just a household pet”. They allow these people struggling with autism to lead completely normal lives without the constant care or help from another human. This can also assist these people with self-esteem and independence development. My belief is that if we offer animals loving and caring homes, they will reward us with more benefits than imaginable.

  15. Michelle Adams (u14023432) April 21, 2014 at 12:29 pm #

    In this article, the age old phrase that “a dog is man’s best friend” is proven once again. It is amazing how dogs can help so many people with different special needs. Autistic children find it difficult to communicate, so it makes perfect sense that dogs would help them with communication skills. These children can open up to their dogs because they do not feel pressure from the dog and feel accepted. Thus it enables them to communicate with others by helping to build their confidence. These dogs serve as companions to these children when they have no one else to talk to.

    I agree with the article when it says that the selection process of dogs for autistic families should be done more thoroughly than with normal families because autistic children can be very sensitive and it takes just the right type of dog to help that child blossom to its full potential. The type of dog that families with autistic children get, can either make or break these children. To help parents in this selection process there are special dogs available for autistic children. These dogs do not only serve as companions but also help to look after the child. These special autism service dogs are trained to support and look after these children. For instance, these dogs will keep the child safe because autistic children have the tendency to wander off without thinking about the dangers of their expedition and these dogs will prevent that from happening. These service dogs will also have an impact on autistic children’s parents because these dogs will give the parents peace of mind and will help carry some of the responsibilities.

    People often tend to focus on the negative aspects of having dogs but I think that the positive aspects of having them as companions overrule the negative aspects. I think these special autism service dogs are the perfect solution to help a condition/disorder that cannot be reversed/cured by lightening the load of those who suffer from it. I feel we do not give dogs the credit they deserve.

  16. u14026814 Tanja Werle April 21, 2014 at 7:25 am #

    That is a very good question. One definitely has to take that into consideration. I think the best advice is to only adopt a pet once you are sure you/your parent/guardian can cope with the added responsibility of looking after a pet.

  17. u14018269 April 20, 2014 at 8:52 am #

    I agree with all the responses regarding the fact that dogs are able to bridge the communication gap between autistic children and their social relationships and I feel that the positive impacts vastly outweigh the negatives. I also feel further research should be done regarding the impact other household animals can have on children struggling with mental and physical disabilities. As a person with a strong passion for animals, my only concern is if the child can physically not cope with having the pet in their company or vicinity, what happens to the pet then? Shelter? Euthanasia?

  18. u14007097 April 20, 2014 at 6:23 am #

    I found this article extremely interesting as the topic is not one that I have thought into deeply before. As the article says, children with autism find it difficult to interact socially and further research shows that they actually find it difficult to initiate social interactions and have difficulty in relating to other children, therefore, have they have trouble making friends. As written in the article, a dog is a great way to bridge the communication gap. The dog can act as a topic of conversation between the child with autism and another child, making it easier and less stressful for the autistic child to interact socially. Kedibone Scheppers, I too believe that dogs can bridge communication gaps between all members of the family, but they can be of even more benefit to the child with autism.
    Autistic children can be affected positively by a dog in the following ways:
    They can learn about nonverbal communication and unconditional love and can feel as though they have a constant companion and protector. There are dogs that are trained to remain calm in all situations, and therefore, these dogs can have a significant effect on stress relief in autistic children. The children can also learn to be more focused and to not wander off from their parents in public places if the dog is with them, because the child can develop an extremely strong attachment to the dog.
    I appreciated that this article also gave alternatives to getting a dog to help the child as a dog may very well not be suited to certain families.

    Wringer, R. 2014. Trained in calmness, dogs help autistic kids. Iohud The Journal News. [Online]. Available: [Cited 20 April 2014].

  19. u14026814 Tanja Werle April 19, 2014 at 11:18 pm #

    Kedibone Scheppers, I think it depends on the child. If the child likes animals, then another animal may possibly help bridge the communication gap. If the child does not like animals, then alternative ways have to be found to help the child. It has been proven that music therapy, for example, is very effective in helping children with autism. But then again, does that mean that it will help every child with autism?

  20. Sally-ann Baloyi April 19, 2014 at 9:55 am #


    It is indeed a man’s best. Regardless of all the negative things about dogs, we actually benefit from having them in our homes.

  21. u14018269 April 17, 2014 at 5:38 am #

    I thoroughly enjoyed how this article explored all aspects of the impact of household animals on children suffering from autism, not only the positive details. It gave alternative options if the child is tactile or noise sensitive. This information is beneficial to the parents of autistic children who are wanting to explore this path of “treatment”. Further research also indicated that dogs and household pets not only enhanced the child’s social abilities but also increased their learning capacity and educational development. This article made me think of the impact that my pets have in my life and the impact many pets have on members of society for example, guide dogs leading the blind. Maybe the statement is true that a dog is a man’s best friend.

  22. Sally-Ann April 17, 2014 at 1:01 am #


    Your additional information makes it even more understandable and reasonable. This opened my eyes a little and makes me wish I can see at least one child with autism bonding with a dog though I am visualizing it right now @ MS…according to the text above, cats, rabbits and horses might be better suited for children with autism if they are sensitive to dogs or do not like them, these pets serve as an alternative for families living with such children, hopefully a child will like at least one of them.

  23. Kedibone Scheppers April 16, 2014 at 8:51 am #


    This is a very interesting conversation. I find it believable that dogs would help people with autism, Though I believe that dogs help bridge communication gaps between all people. My one question is: If autistic people could not have dogs due to an allergy or something like that, what would be another animal suited to help bridge the communication gap?

  24. MS - u14223776 April 16, 2014 at 5:42 am #

    Though a rather new field of research, therapy dogs are being trained and used to help autistic children cope with their autism. Here are a few ways in which these service dogs can help children with autism:

    Children suffering from autism often have temperamental outbursts, once a therapy dog has bonded with an autistic child, the dog can actually calm the child when these uncontrollable tantrums occur. The canines are trained to remain calm and understanding during these tantrums. It is also important that the child understands that the dog is there for them to pet and play with when they are feeling emotional. This is not a full prove recipe for autistic children to overcome temperament, but it certainly is a very helpful tool for many children.

    Another field that these therapy dogs are trained in is to realize when an autistic child is engaging in repetitive actions and behaviors (for example tapping their foot for a prolonged period of time, or rocking back and forth, as autistic children often do). The therapy dog will then distract the child and the child will discontinue with the monotonous behavior in which they were engaging.

    Another behavior that is often seen in autistic children is their tendency to wander off. Therapy dogs are trained to keep autistic children from drifting off by walking around them , or by barking to alert parents when the child is straying off.

    Training therapy dogs to help children with autism is still a very new area of research and there are many philosophies and controversies on the topic. Here are a few organizations that are training dogs to become therapy dogs for children with autism:

    – Autism Service Dogs of America (ASDA) – (
    – Psychiatric Service Dog Society – (
    – The North Star Foundation – (

  25. Sally-Ann Baloyi April 15, 2014 at 11:27 pm #


    Interesting indeed! Who would have thought that dogs can offer such companionship to children with disabilities such as Autism? I wish all parents who have such children would know about this so they can offer their children the best support they need when it comes to interacting. It’s amazing how the children even know the qualities they want in a dog, is there a natural connection between them and dogs perhaps?

  26. u14078849 April 15, 2014 at 10:07 am #

    Very interesting topic! I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, I only wish more in depth studies were included which gave some statistics about whether the breed or age of the dog plays a role and possibly more information about the benefits of the other animals mentioned.

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