Blog: How Dogs Help People with Autism | HABRI

Autism is a complex neurological and developmental disorder that begins early in life and affects how a person acts and interacts with others, communicates, and learns. Individuals with Autism may be challenged by social communication and repetitive behaviors, and anxiety. Autism is a highly individualized developmental disability, and everyone with autism experiences it differently, which is why autism is known as a spectrum disorder. Approximately 1 in 44 children has been identified with Autism[1].

For Autism Awareness Month, HABRI is highlighting the special ways that dogs can benefit people with Autism. A growing body of research demonstrates that interaction with dogs can positively impact individuals with Autism, particularly for improved communication, mental health, and classroom learning.

Dogs Help Develop Communication Skills

Research shows children with autism who have a pet dog or service dog perform better in social situations, including expressing more assertiveness[2], and exhibiting increased prosocial behaviors like sharing and empathy[3]. Both parents and children included in this research report that children feel strongly bonded to the dog[4].

HABRI-funded research shows that incorporating therapy dogs into social skills training for children with autism may be more beneficial for improving social skills compared to training without a dog[5]. This study, “Animal-Assisted Social Skills Training for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders”, compared students ages 8-14 in a therapeutic treatment facility who participated in 12 weeks of social skills training with or without a therapy dog present. Following participation, children who were in the dog group reported greater reductions in symptoms measured by an Interpersonal Problems and Functional Problems scale compared to children in the group without the dog. The study also found that participants who received the animal-assisted social skills intervention exhibited a greater level of change in social skills, perspective taking, theory of mind, and decreased feelings of isolation and depression.

Another HABRI-funded project, “Physiological Wellness Effects of Animal-Assisted Activities in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder in a Specialized Psychiatric Hospital Program”, examined dog-assisted interventions among youth age 6-8 in a psychiatric hospital unit for children with autism. The results of this study[6] indicate that social-communication behaviors significantly improved in the dog-assisted activities compared to interventions with no dog, providing support for animal-assisted activities with a dog for this population. Specifically, participants in the therapy dog group displayed more positive emotional facial expressions, talking, use of gestures, and looking at both adults and peers.

Dogs can also help adults with autism better communicate with others. In interviews with UK autistic dog owners, participants often reported that their pet dogs act as a social catalyst, facilitating interaction with others in the community[7]. Common responses include that their dog boosts confidence when talking with others, and that pet dogs offer an easy topic of conversation.

Dogs Improve Mental Health

Stress-related mental health problems such as depression and anxiety are common in people with autism, affecting to 77% of adults with autism[8]. Research has found that pets are often seen as central to the daily management of mental health  among pet owners managing long-term mental health conditions[9]. Pets help establish a firm daily routine, provide non-judgmental companionship, and imbue a meaning of purpose in the life of the pet owner after taking care of the pet. Similar observations have been made in studies that specifically focus on individuals with autism.

Service dogs remain a popular treatment option for families which include a child with autism. Incorporating a service dog into the family has been shown to decrease anxiety and anger and increase calmness in children with autism[10]. Studies have also found that service dogs[11] and pet dogs[12] can reduce caregiver stress in families of children with Autism. Dog-assisted therapy may also reduce stress, agoraphobia, and depression in both children[13] and adults with autism[14].

In a study of dog-owning households with families of children with autism, when parents tasked their children with taking more responsibility for the pet dog, the children experienced reduced depressive symptoms[15]. Pet dogs have also been shown to reduce separation anxiety and social phobias in children with autism[16].

Adults with autism, who more frequently report mental health problems compared to the general population, can also benefit greatly from a pet dog. Interviews with autistic dog owners in the UK reveal the vast majority report that their pet dog improves their mood and increases feelings of well-being and life satisfaction. These interviews also suggest that dog ownership may serve as a pathway to suicide prevention in adults with autism[17], with over 1 in 8 participants reporting that their dog was the reason they did not take their own lives.

Dogs Support Classroom Learning

Children with Autism may be victimized by their peers, which can lead to social isolation[18] and behaviors that hinder learning and can even carry over into difficult behaviors at home[19]. The presence of a therapy dog in the classroom can benefit students with autism in many ways. Just as dog-assisted activities can improve social skills and communication in children with autism (as described above), therapeutic interventions performed in the classroom can have similar outcomes[20].

Research also shows that students with Autism interact with their peers more in the presence of a therapy dog, which can facilitate learning[21] and social acceptance. Reading to a dog can also have a positive effect on children’s motivation and attitude toward reading[22].

Teachers themselves report a range of benefits of having a therapy dog in their own classroom[23]. While children may pay considerable attention to a dog in the classroom, one study found that they also pay comparatively more attention to the teacher, compared to classrooms with no dog[24].

Help HABRI raise awareness of the benefits of dogs and the human-animal bond for individuals with Autism by sharing our blog with your colleagues, friends, and family!

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[1] Maenner, M. J., Shaw, K. A., Bakian, A. V., Bilder, D. A., Durkin, M. S., Esler, A., … & Cogswell, M. E. (2021). Prevalence and characteristics of autism spectrum disorder among children aged 8 years—autism and developmental disabilities monitoring network, 11 sites, United States, 2018. MMWR Surveillance Summaries, 70(11), 1.

[2] Carlisle, G. K. (2015). The social skills and attachment to dogs of children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45(5), 1137-1145.

[3] Grandgeorge, M., Tordjman, S., Lazartigues, A., Lemonnier, E., Deleau, M., & Hausberger, M. (2012). Does pet arrival trigger prosocial behaviors in individuals with autism?.

[4] Ibd Carlisle

[5] Becker, J. L., Rogers, E. C., & Burrows, B. (2017). Animal-assisted social skills training for children with autism spectrum disorders. Anthrozoös, 30(2), 307-326.

[6] Germone, M. M., Gabriels, R. L., Guérin, N. A., Pan, Z., Banks, T., & O’Haire, M. E. (2019). Animal-assisted activity improves social behaviors in psychiatrically hospitalized youth with autism. Autism, 23(7), 1740-1751.

[7] Barcelos, A. M., Kargas, N., Packham, C., & Mills, D. S. (2021). Understanding the impact of dog ownership on autistic adults: implications for mental health and suicide prevention. Scientific reports11(1), 1-16.

[8] Joshi, G., Wozniak, J., Petty, C., Martelon, M. K., Fried, R., Bolfek, A., … & Biederman, J. (2013). Psychiatric comorbidity and functioning in a clinically referred population of adults with autism spectrum disorders: a comparative study. Journal of autism and developmental disorders43(6), 1314-1325.

[9] Brooks, H., Rushton, K., Walker, S., Lovell, K., & Rogers, A. (2016). Ontological security and connectivity provided by pets: a study in the self-management of the everyday lives of people diagnosed with a long-term mental health condition. BMC psychiatry16(1), 1-12.

[10] Burrows, K. E., Adams, C. L., & Spiers, J. (2008). Sentinels of safety: Service dogs ensure safety and enhance freedom and well-being for families with autistic children. Qualitative health research, 18(12), 1642-1649.

[11] Burgoyne, L., Dowling, L., Fitzgerald, A., Connolly, M., Browne, J. P., & Perry, I. J. (2014). Parents’ perspectives on the value of assistance dogs for children with autism spectrum disorder: a cross-sectional study. BMJ open, 4(6), e004786.

[12] Wright, H. F., Hall, S., Hames, A., Hardiman, J., Mills, R., & Mills, D. S. (2015). Acquiring a pet dog significantly reduces stress of primary carers for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A prospective case control study. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 45(8), 2531-2540.

[13] O’Haire, M. E. (2013). Animal-assisted intervention for autism spectrum disorder: A systematic literature review. Journal of autism and developmental disorders43(7), 1606-1622.

[14] Wijker, C., Leontjevas, R., Spek, A., & Enders-Slegers, M. J. (2020). Effects of dog assisted therapy for adults with autism spectrum disorder: An exploratory randomized controlled trial. Journal of autism and developmental disorders50(6), 2153-2163.

[15] Ward, A., Arola, N., Bohnert, A., & Lieb, R. (2017). Social-emotional adjustment and pet ownership among adolescents with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of communication disorders65, 35-42.

[16] Wright, H., Hall, S., Hames, A., Hardiman, J., Mills, R., PAWS Project Team, & Mills, D. (2015). Pet dogs improve family functioning and reduce anxiety in children with autism spectrum disorder. Anthrozoös28(4), 611-624.

[17] Ibid. Barcelos

[18] Bauminger, N., Shulman, C., & Agam, G. (2003). Peer interaction and loneliness in high-functioning children with autism. Journal of autism and developmental disorders33(5), 489-507.

[19] O’Haire, M. E., McKenzie, S. J., McCune, S., & Slaughter, V. (2014). Effects of classroom animal-assisted activities on social functioning in children with autism spectrum disorder. The journal of alternative and complementary medicine20(3), 162-168.

[20] Smith, B. P., & Dale, A. A. (2016). Integrating animals in the classroom: The attitudes and experiences of Australian school teachers toward animal-assisted interventions for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Pet Behaviour Science, (1), 13-22.

[21] Grigore, A. A., & Rusu, A. S. (2014). Interaction with a therapy dog enhances the effects of social story method in autistic children. Society & Animals, 22(3), 241-261.

[22] Uccheddu, S., Albertini, M., Pierantoni, L., Fantino, S., & Pirrone, F. (2019). The impacts of a Reading-to-Dog Programme on attending and reading of nine children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Animals, 9(8), 491.

[23] Ibd. Smith

[24] Kotrschal, K., & Ortbauer, B. (2003). Behavioral effects of the presence of a dog in a classroom. Anthrozoös16(2), 147-159.