Autism service dog

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A tri-color smooth collie autism service dog performs a deep pressure task for its adult handler during an outdoor concert.

An autism service dog is a service dog trained to assist an autistic person to help them gain independence and the ability to perform activities of daily living similar to anyone else. For the most part, these dogs are trained to perform tasks similar to those of service dogs for other sensory processing disorders.


Autism service dogs are trained to help their disabled handler live independently. Many autism service dogs are trained in guide work/obstacle avoidance (similar to a guide dog) to help the handler with visual stimuli, find specific locations to help with navigation, signal to sounds, and provide targeted deep pressure therapy. Herding breeds are better suited for autism service dogs. Traditional sporting or hunting breeds are more for those with mechanical disabilities, not neurological. Autism is a disorder that has to do with the brain, thus the companionship and bond with the child or adult is most critical. Herders have a natural instinct to tend to their charge and do not mind spending long hours at the side of an autistic person who may have limited mobility or repetitive mannerisms. Briards and other herders have had successful placement with autistic people due to the lack of shedding, high intelligence, and emotional bond with their charge. Many autistic people have sensory issues that prevent them from having a traditional breed, such as a labrador retriever (due to the hair texture), so many autism service dogs are non-traditional breeds.

As with hearing dogs for the deaf, the dogs may be trained to alert their handler to important noises or other things requiring human intervention, such as smoke or a smoke alarm, a crying baby, a telephone ringing, or a knock at the door. For an autistic person, it may not be immediately obvious which of the many external stimuli is the urgent one requiring their immediate attention. An autistic person may have to sort through both major and minor stimuli—the sound of crickets, the smell of the fabric softener on their clothes, a car driving past outside—to determine which of these, if any, needs their attention. They may understand that a smoke alarm is urgent and requires them to exit the building, but it might take more time to realize the alarm is sounding in the first place.[1]

How service dogs are trained to respond to certain behaviors:[2]

Behavior Response
Self-stimulation Will signal behavior to handler, handler may choose to stop (potentially harmful)
Self harming Will interrupt behavior
Overstimulation/meltdown/shutdown Deep pressure tasks: step on foot, paws on lap, lie on handler
Poor balance/motor control Counterbalance, brace for stability
Disorientation Find the car, go home, find other specified places
Auditory scene analysis Alert to important sounds
Visual processing problems Guide work - steer around obstacles
Autism service dog helping calm his boy during visit to the doctor's office.

In addition to the above responses, there are three major ways a service dog can help, especially with children:

  • To help prevent the child from wandering or running away.
  • To help with self-soothing during melt-downs. The tactile stimulation, whether by petting, hugging, or having the dog actually lie on the child, can help the child learn the skills of calming themselves.
  • Socialization (including serving as a "social bridge", so as children and adults come over and ask about the dog, the Autistic child is prompted to answer. The parent should not answer questions, but should refer all inquiries to the child. Thus with the dog, rather than having just the parent or teacher try to bring the child out of their own world, the entire community is talking to the child.)

A long-term study of service dogs and autistic children reported:[3]

  • “Highly significant increase in pro-social behavior with a parallel decrease in self-absorption."
  • "Fewer autistic behaviors - examples include clicking noises, repetitive spinning or jumping or hand-posturing (stimming), and bolting or roaming."
  • "More socially-appropriate behaviors (such as reaching up for hugs, frequently imitating the therapist's actions, joining or initiating games).”

Autistic Adults[edit]

Autistic adults can also benefit from a service dog. Unfortunately, most service dog programs only "train" dogs for autistic children, rather than training dogs for autistic adults. Because of this, most autistic adults that need a service dog will have to train their own or hire a private trainer to train one.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Service Dog Central - Tasks for Autism Service Dogs Retrieved on January 28, 2008.
  2. ^
  3. ^ [1] Redefer, L. A., & Goodman, J. F. (1989), Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 19(3), 461-467