Through our experience over the years, training dogs for children with autism, we have seen the bond that can be created and the amazing differences that the dog can make to a child’s life.
Dogs have an incredible way of changing our lives for the better with their caring and loving nature. Just having a therapy dog in your presence can improve your mind and well-being more than you would think as it can help take away all your worries, anxieties and emotional pains. Therapy dogs are sometimes called “comfort dogs” because they support a person’s mental well-being by providing them with attention and comfort to make them feel safe.
Here are 13 ways a Therapy Dog can provide significant benefits for a child with autism
1. Improved social skills
Children with autism have impaired communication skills and with the help of a therapy dog, they can build their confidence up and improve their skills. Over the years we have seen many children improve with their verbal communication with one of them being Harry, our son with autism, who went from being a non-verbal child to a little man who doesn’t stop chatting! Harry still hasn’t developed total communicative language and his processing of language is significantly longer than a typically developing child, but he's progressing further than we ever imagined he would do.
2. Sensory support
Parents who have a therapy dog for their autistic child will find sensory stimulation through activities and games can be beneficial in many ways. From games of tug and war to grooming, playing fetch or even a simple cuddle. The dog can also lie on or across the child known as deep pressure therapy, this allows pressure to be put on the child’s lap and gives them a feeling of comfort as well as allowing them to feel calmer in high stress situations. Even by stroking the dog’s coat it can help provide the child enough sensory release making them feel more relaxed.
3. Overcoming fears and helping with anxiety
Many children living with autism and other disabilities can find it difficult going to public places such as dentists, hospitals, schools or shops etc. This can make leaving the house and getting social interaction from others challenging. A dog can help with getting a child with autism out the house by letting them learn the responsibilities of looking after a dog. For example, a dog needs daily exercise, so the child will need to incorporate a dog walk into their daily routine meaning they will need to go out with them.
4. Reduce stress
Stress can occur at any time and a therapy dog can help by reliving the child from that stress by providing them with comfort and a sense of security. Alongside the child, a dog can help reduce the parental stress as the parent/s will begin to notice they have less to worry about with the dog present.
5. Better days out!
For a child, having a therapy dog by their side can make them feel safe and make their worries go away. They will be able to enjoy themselves knowing their best friend is by their side every step of the way. Therapy dogs don’t just provide help for the child, but also the rest of the family too. Having the child’s stress levels reduced by the companionship of the dog, will benefit the rest of the family from having to deal with the sudden outbursts, meltdowns and the other parental issues that might occur with a child with autism. Therapy dogs have access to most settings meaning you will be able to have a fun day out as a family with the dog by yours and the child’s side!
6. Building friendships and a social bridge
Many children living with autism can find it hard to make new friendships and the dog can help by initiating contact with others and peers they may not have had the opportunity to interact with before they had a dog. For example, our dogs wear a special identifying-coloured blue harnesses with “therapy dog” written on the side. Some people, when they see this, come over and ask if they can pet the dog. This then leads to a conversation about the dog, with them asking questions like “what they do? what’s their name? breed? age?” etc. This type of interaction then builds the foundation blocks for developing social skills.
7. Help promote positive changes in the child’s behaviour
Some children with autism demonstrate repetitive behaviours such as hand flapping, rocking back and forth and stomping their feet, etc. Our dogs can be trained to recognize these actions from the child, and as a result paw at the child’s leg to interrupt the behaviour, this distracts the child and gets them to stop. Moreover, a therapy dog can help by changing a child’s behaviour positively and encourage the child to go out of their comfort zone and to try new things.
8. Comfort and calming during meltdowns
A therapy dog can assist during meltdowns and sudden outbursts by calming and comforting the child to help get them to stop. The dog is taught how to provide deep pressure therapy throughout their training by recognising if the child is distressed. Often, when the dog intervenes with the child, they will either reduce the length of the meltdown or they could stop it altogether.
9. Playing games
Therapy dogs are trained to play games with the child. There are a number of games we can teach them including hide and seek, tag, and various ball games to name a few. It’s a great way to teach a child about sharing, taking turns and rules whilst having fun too! On top of that, a dog never cares who wins at the end of the day!
Every parent understands about worrying when it comes to their child’s safety, especially parents living with a child with autism. Autistic children tend to be less aware of the dangers around them as they don’t always understand the outcomes and consequences of their actions. Therapy dogs are trained to help with the child’s safety, to make sure the child stays safe whilst at home and in public areas. Some autistic children are prone to wandering off, and the dog may bark to alert family members of this happening, to ensure the safety of the child.
You may think, how can a therapy dog help a child with autism sleep better? Well, between the
child and the dog, the strong bond that is created will encourage the child to get into bed and settle down quicker. The dog can also sleep with the child in the bed or in the room.
‘Harry used to need his parents to settle him at bedtime for a long time, as well as re-settling him several times overnight. Through training Harry’s assistance dog Bale, Harry is now happy to go to sleep and stay asleep, knowing he has Bale keeping him safe.’
12. Responsibility and improvement of other skills
Having a dog can be a big responsibility in you and your child’s life. They need to remember to feed them, take them for walks and care for them. This gives the child a sense of responsibility and will also help improve other skills for the child at the same time. For example, the child will be learning to pick up and throw balls for the dog, opening food containers and placing their food bowl on floor for them etc.
13.Companionship and a new Best friend!
Therapy dogs have the ability to quickly create a bond with a child and make it special. The child makes a friend, and the dog will start to fill the void or feelings of loneliness without judging the child allowing them to trust the dog and feel more confident in themselves.
Overall, the combination of all the benefits in ways a therapy dog can help a child with autism can be life changing for the child and the family. The dog provides the opportunity for the child to progress in aspects of their life you would have never thought possible, including allowing the child to improve their quality of life, their overall health and their confidence in many different situations.