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Service Dogs are Best Friend of Children with Autism


Dogs are man’s best friend and the best friend of children who live with the challenge of autism, according to a new study conducted in Canada. Service dogs have long assisted people who have physical challenges, and now scientists have physical evidence that they can help children with autism as well.

Study supports what some already knew about kids and autism

A research team in Canada measured stress hormones in children with autism and interviewed their parents about their child’s behavior before, during, and after introducing a service dog into their home. Overall, the parents in the 42 families who participated in the study reported 33 problem behaviors (e.g., tantrums, anxiety, intolerance of noise) before the dog came into the home and only 25 while the dog was in the home.

The reduction in problem behaviors was accompanied by a decline in the levels of stress hormone (cortisol) in the children. Before introduction of service dogs, there was a 58 percent increase in morning cortisol levels after children awoke, which declined to 10 percent when service dogs were present. The increase in morning cortisol jumped to 48 percent once the dogs were removed from the families.

The families that participated in the study had the option of keeping the service dog that had helped their child. MIRA Foundation, in Quebec, which specializes in dogs for physically challenged individuals, provided the dogs. For this study, the dogs had undergone three months of training to remain calm even when in a chaotic environment.

An autism spectrum disorder affects about 1 in every 110 children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Studies in Europe, North America, and Asia have noted an approximately prevalence of 0.6 to more than 1 percent.

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Autism spectrum disorders are a group of developmental disabilities characterized by atypical development in behavior, communication skills, and socialization. These disorders include autistic disorder (autism), Asperger disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified. Children who have the latter two disorders have fewer and milder symptoms compared with autism.

In the Canadian study, Sonia Lupien, senior researcher and a professor at the University of Montreal Department of Psychiatry and Director of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress at Louis-H. Lafontaine Hospital, explained that “our findings showed that the dogs had a clear impact on the children’s stress hormone levels. I have not seen such a dramatic effect before.”

Lupien noted that this study was the first to measure the physiological impact of service dogs on children with autism. “Our results lend support to the potential behavioural benefits of service dogs for autistic children.”

In the United States, several organizations provide service dogs for people who have autism. In Oregon, the Autism Service Dogs of America provides service dogs only for children who have autism. In Ohio, 4 Paws for Ability provides service dogs for children with autism as well as those with other challenges. Others include Blessings Unleashed in Kentucky and Wilderwood Service Dogs in Tennessee, among others.

This latest study from Canada provides evidence of the benefits of service dogs for children who have autism, benefits some parents and children have already experienced without verification from scientific studies. Hopefully, as the studies continue, more and more children with autism will enjoy the benefits of a service dog.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Viau R et al. Psychoneuroendocrinology 2010 Sep; 35(8): 1187-93