- Your Child Doesn't Want An Autism Dog (Probably)
** Sarcasm. People on the internet can be wrong. For example, a woeful number of them will vigorously defend this puzzle piece ribbon, even though it is an abomination designed either by someone who doesn't understand how puzzles work, or who committed this sin deliberately to torture the autistic mind's need for correctness and order. Seriously, the longer you look the worse it gets.
I put "autism dog" in quotes because usually I can't get any more details than that. People know that autism dogs exist, but seem a little vague on what they actually do.
Anchoring - Dogs can anchor a small child who is prone to taking off, stopping at curbs and coming to Mom when called, and thus bringing the child with them.
Behavior Interruption - dogs can be taught to interrupt self-harmful behaviors like skin picking or head banging.
Social Support - dogs make for great conversation greasers. As an autistic person, I can vouch for how easy social interactions are when you have a dog. People always ask the same questions, and I've got the scripts for the answers down pat. Then people start talking to me about their dog and I just nod and smile and coo over pictures. It's easy!
Sensory Support - Is there anything more soothing than the feeling of soft ears between my fingers? And a firm handle to hold is so steadying when I'm feeling lost and overwhelmed. A tug of a guiding dog with a handle can even help me overcome autistic inertia.
Unconditional Love - when you're autistic people tend to look at you strangely. A lot. Because we process the world differently, we experience the world differently which means that quite frankly we inhabit a slightly different reality from the people around us. That can get lonely. You know who doesn't care whether I made a faux pas at a party? Dogs. They're completely immune to cringe.
Sometimes, working with an autistic child and their dog can be the highlight of my day. Sometimes my phone lights up with texts from clients telling me that their child went to the DENTIST without a fight because they were told the dog could come too.
Personally, dogs are necessary for my sanity.
A dog can't rewire our brains.
A dog can't make the world quieter, the lights in the grocery store dimmer, or help us when we panic at Subway because they forgot one of the sandwiches we ordered and now we have to either go home short a sandwich and go hungry for dinner or speak up.*
They definitely can't help us when we try to navigate downtown without Siri and accidentally turn the wrong way on a one way street.**
We WILL still be anxious, because the world is complex and not designed to fit our needs. A dog can't change that. All they can do is help keep us company.
**If any police officers are reading this I'm joking!!!***
***No seriously it was scary but no one got hurt and now I will always always have Siri on. I learned my lesson. I'm too autistic for downtown.
But there are some really important reasons to not even try.
But the fact is that the majority of autistic children, from verbal to non verbal, from apraxic to non-apraxic, with or without intellectual disability, do not enjoy dogs.
Dogs are slimy. Dogs are smelly. Dogs love eye contact. Dogs poop and drool and chew and bark. They jump on you. They nip and claw at you. They are sensory nightmares!
Autistic people are often more cat people than dog people. Horses tend to be good. Rabbits. Guinea pigs. Doves, maybe. Not stinking, drooling, biting, noisy dogs.
In cases where the child is intellectually disabled, severely apraxic and unable to control their bodies and communication, the parent must be the handler. So that means the parent now has to control both the dog and child.
Yes, even if your child desperately wants a dog.
Puppies are terrible - especially if you're autistic. They are untamed baby predators. Their breath smells like skunk. They leave smelly messes on the floor. They chew beloved toys. They jump up. They have VERY sharp teeth which they like to embed in our skin. They chase anything that moves. They raise the stress in the household.
Even if your child really wants a dog, puppyhood is... really hard.
Even if you think you know what to expect... you don't.
Violent behavior is pretty common during meltdowns. While some of us just elope and scream, or collapse on the floor like a Victorian lady, some people hit and throw things. And sometimes those things can be puppies.
I think Amelia's still recovering from THAT training appointment.
I have seen this happen in families where the parent was 100% positive that their child would never hurt a dog.
MULTIPLE families who were certain their child would never hurt a dog.
When a child is in meltdown they are not in control of themselves.
No matter how much benefit a dog could bring to your child, no matter how much your child professes to love dogs, if your child hurts people during meltdowns, they cannot have a service dog. We do not have the right to put a dog in harm's way.
It is not uncommon for less scrupulous dog trainers to bill themselves as BIs, so the family can use autism funding to pay them. To be clear - this is fraud. Autism BI funding does NOT cover dog trainers and dog trainers are NOT BIs.
** 22k vs 0k in case you were wondering.
Note: I'm not referring to Assistance Dog International accredited charities such as BC Guide Dogs. A respectable and certified assistance dog school will put you through a rigorous vetting process to ensure that you meet their criteria. They will not be eager to hand you a dog, nor will they demand money beyond a possible application fee or encouraging you to help fundraise. Their dogs will be well trained and carefully picked to suit your family's needs.
Unfortunately, since accredited charities contend with massive wait-lists, and since they triage their applicants, many families either don't qualify (likely for good reason - see reasons 1, 3, and 4) or do not want to wait years for their dog.
This opens them up to predatory service dog programs who will often charge thousands for poorly trained dogs who sometimes even bite the children they are supposed to be helping.
Anxiety in dogs is at an all-time high, and an anxious dog can't support someone else's anxiety.
Nor can a puppy - a child should not be leaned on emotionally by their older family members, even if they're a dog.
You can't decide someone's career for them when they're only 9 weeks old. Our puppy prodigy program is designed to help maximize a dog's potential, help give the guardian good communication with their dog, and build an emotionally healthy foundation. But we can't change their fundamental temperament.
A nervous, jumpy dog will probably always be a nervous, jumpy dog. All we can do is help them feel comfortable and safe in as many places as possible, so they won't be so nervous and jumpy. A dog who hates to be manhandled will never love to be manhandled. We can help them learn to tolerate necessary touch for coat and nail care and maintenance, and sedate them for more invasive vet procedures, but they won't ever be "PLEASE PET ME!!" dogs.
So even if you have a dog-obsessed kid, you also have to find a kid-obsessed dog who just loves to keep them company in weird and scary doctors' offices, schools and shopping malls.
All of our success stories managed to avoid the six pitfalls I listed above. But for every one I could tell you about, I could tell you about five more families whose kid didn't want anything to do with the dog, or who had to rehome the dog, or who dropped out of training because it was too much work, or because of health problems in the family, or whose dog turned out to have anxiety even though they did everything right.
So if you are thinking about training an autism dog for yourself or someone you love, and you've read this article and think that you are the exception to the rule, by all means get in touch.