Service dogs for autism

Temple Grandin is an American doctor of Animal Science and a professor at Colorado State University. In addition to being a consultant to the livestock industry on animal behavior, she is perhaps best known for her invention of the squeeze machine, a machine designed specifically to help individuals with sensory issues by applying calming pressure. These days Temple has taken a special interest in service dogs and the important roles that they play in the lives of children with autism spectrum disorders. It should come as no surprise given her extensive background with animals and her own diagnosis of high functioning autism that this is a matter close to her heart.

Although service dogs have proven to be very effective at providing both symptom management and basic safety, Temple encourages parents to find the right match for their home. Like all children, children on the autism spectrum can have a range of responses upon encountering a dog for the first time. Temple advises parents to gauge their children’s reactions by exposing them to other dogs before settling on a service dog of their own.  She also stresses the importance of introducing children to dogs in a calm, safe, environment.

Temple explores the different response styles that children with autism spectrum disorder tend to exhibit upon first encountering a service dog, and groups them into three basic categories.

Some children will immediately take to the dog, forging a bond almost instantly. For these children the benefits of having a service dog around should be obvious. Not only do these dogs fill a need for meaningful social interactions with a special companion, but the dogs can actually serve as ice breakers in social situations with other children and adults. Often people will find a child with a dog more approachable, and they tend to initiate more social interactions when a dog is present. With the dog already providing a soothing presence by the child’s side the children may feel more comfortable reaching out to others as well.


There are also children who will react hesitantly to the dog at first and grow to appreciate the companion over time. These children often end up forging strong bonds with their service dogs, and benefit greatly from their interactions.

Some children may have more trouble adapting to a new dog than others. Often these are children with sensory issues. Children with sound sensitivity may find a dog’s bark particularly abrasive, and for some children even the smell of a dog can be overpowering. These children may outgrow some of their sensitivities, but if the child finds a dog frightening or unpleasant it may undermine the intended benefits.


Depending on the severity of the child’s disorder and their propensity to stray from home parents may choose a dog that has been specially trained as a “safety dog.”  These dogs remain tethered to the child and act as protectors and guardians. Other service dogs can be companion dogs or therapy dogs, and are trained to provide services consistent with a child’s specific needs.

Perhaps the most important consideration when choosing a service dog is that a good match is important. Every child with an autism spectrum disorder is unique and each pair will form their own special relationship. If you or anyone you know is interested in finding a service dog Temple recommends browsing referrals from satisfied people with service dogs of their own. If you are interested in learning more about these special animals please refer to the list below for further reading:

Arsenault, V.P. (2010). Effects of service dogs on salivary cortisol secretion in autistic children, Psychoneuroendrocrinology, 35:1187-1193.

Burrows, K.E., Adams, C.L. and Millman, S.T. (2008). Factors affecting behavior and welfare of service dogs for children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 11:42-62.

Burrows, K.E., Adams, C.L. and Spiers, J. (2008). Sentinels of safety: Service dogs ensure safety and enhance freedom and well being for families of autistic children. Quality Health Research, 18:1642-1649.

Grandin, T. (2011). The roles animals can play with individuals with autism. In: Peggy McCardle et al. (editors) Animals in our Lives, Brooks Publishing, Baltimore, MD.

Gross, P.D. (2005). The Golden Bridge: A guide to assistance dogs for children challenged by autism and other developmental disorders. Purdue University Press, West Lafayette, Indiana.

Pavlides, M. (2008). Animal Assisted Interactions, Jessica Kingsley, London, UK.

By Alex Arkin