Dog Ownership Benefits Families of Children with Autism

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 thoughts on “Dog Ownership Benefits Families of Children with Autism”

  1. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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..


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