Sometimes in my work, I have the privilege of working with autistic children who require specialised dog training.
According to the Australian Psychological Society, it is estimated that one per cent of all children fall into the Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) with the syndrome impairing boys almost four times more than girls.
Autism is characterised by a range of impairments in the key areas of communication, social and sensory interaction, cognitive and physical coordination and restrictive and repetitive behaviours.
Understanding autism and how it affects the person or child is vital in today’s society and there are many strategies now in place to improve everyday life. This includes the positive impact pet ownership has on an autistic child’s social and behavioural skills.
AAT (Animal Assisted Therapies):
In the Journal of Paediatric Nursing, a survey conducted with parents of children diagnosed with autism found that nearly two-thirds of the families owned a dog. Of that group, 94 per cent confirmed that their child interacted and bonded with their dog.
Of the families without dogs, seven in 10 parents confirmed that their children positively engaged with dogs.
Research has also shown that autistic children who engaged directly with a family pet from a young age demonstrated greater social skills than those who grew up in a household without one. Not only has it been found that a well-trained family pet can have a calming influence, but daily walks with the dog will also provide special bonding time as well as beneficial exercise.
In the same way, learning to care for the pet equally teaches responsibility and untold opportunities to teach other caring behaviours. As for the unique relationship with their pet, the reward for the child is often unconditional bonding, love, and companionship. Canine friends who have a deep, non-judgemental connection and interaction with the child.
There are numerous professional AAT (Animal Assisted Therapies) that address the training challenges. However, before any dog is introduced to the home, families should first consider the dynamics of their household including the special needs of the child and animal welfare concerns.
It is vital that all pets live in a safe and harmonious environment.
Guy and Beau:
In late 2017, my clients, Diane and Russell asked me to introduce a series of AAT techniques for their 15-year-old son, Guy and their four-month-old Shih Tzu puppy named Beau.
Recently, the family had moved from Sydney’s leafy North Shore to the rural splendours of the Southern Highlands in NSW to begin a new life. It was only after Guy had settled into his new home and school, did the family decide to introduce a puppy.
“Our move to the Southern Highlands made it possible for Guy to have a dog,” said Diane as we sat on her balcony watching Guy gently interact with Beau. “Our yard and surrounding neighbourhood allowed us space and freedom to have a dog, and our flexible work hours meant that we could all engage with Beau as a family.”
It was clear that Beau has brought Guy numerous developmental benefits.
At a recent training session, Guy demonstrated his growing confidence by engaging in a conversation with me. He also readily adapted to my training instructions and Beau calmly followed Guy’s lead.
Another delightful element to our walk was the conversation I had with Guy on the special bond he had established with Beau.
“Guy and Beau have a special relationship,” agreed Diane, who along with her husband, Russell, is also a dog lover. And Beau is very much a family affair. “Guy has taken on some new responsibilities and Beau has been wonderful for his emotional development.”
Introducing A New Companion:
If you are considering purchasing or adopting a dog, Golden Retrievers, Labradoodles or Poodle mixes are the breeds generally recommended, as they tend to have a calm temperament and are highly intelligent. As an alternative, some of the smaller breeds such as Cavoodles and Spoodles may also be a good choice. Irrespective of the breed, you still have to review the dynamics such as your family’s own lifestyle and routine and your child’s responsive behaviours.
For example, a dog may not be suitable if your child reacts to sudden noises or movements such as barking and jumping. Then there is the possibility of your child becoming distressed if the dog is too boisterous or the dog reacts aggressively to an outburst.
Another big decision concerns the type of dog your child would desire. A puppy or a rescue dog?
Let’s look at a rescue dog.
Many rescue dogs have unknown histories which make it difficult to predict how they will react if they become frightened or feel threatened by any family member. But some rescue dogs also gravitate towards their new families right from the start.
Though I have rehabilitated hundreds of shelter dogs, in this instance I believe that a puppy is more suitable for children with any disability as it can be trained in an environment suited to your child’s special requirements, temperament and physical or cognitive limitations. More importantly, like Guy and Beau, your child will have the opportunity to fully-bond right from the start.
Therapy dogs are known for their calming influence and ability to promote social interaction. In the same way, these dogs are specially trained to also identify and quietly stop any damaging behaviours that could cause emotional outbursts. If this is the case, your child’s psychologist will be able to link you directly to a therapy trainer who has worked with a particular dog for many months.
Our AAT program centres on positive and ethical training including implementing a strict code of welfare and safety standards.
If you decide to purchase a puppy, DogSmart Australia’s can devise an AAT program to suit your child’s unique disposition, your family environment and the breed of dog you’re considering or have introduced to the home.
Before you make any commitment, I recommend that you speak in-depth with your child’s psychologist and book an in-home dog | puppy set-up consultation.
My sincere thanks to Dianne, Russell, and Guy. It was truly an honour to work with you and Beau. A truly inspirational family.
Please support Autism Awareness Australia and embrace World Autism Awareness Day on April 2, 2018.