I recently learned about a new type of therapy for children with autism that uses dogs to teach social and behavioral skills. Actually, this therapy isn’t new at all, but has been around for 50 years. Some children have these dogs with them full time and bring them to school, play with them at home, and take them on outings. Other programs bring their dogs to special education schools to assist in teaching. One such program has two dogs, Higgins and Eliza, which visit a special education school and have helped to improve the children’s eye contact and conversation skills. This seems like a great program for schools to have because children can so easily bond with animals, especially dogs.
A recent study tested whether children with autism would rather play with an object, person, or dog. The result was that they preferred and played with the dogs longer than either people or objects. As a dog lover myself, I know that sometimes I am the same way. Dogs are fun, loyal, and many mimic your energy, making them the perfect companion. For children with autism, these dogs are able to help them learn social skills without the expectations of other children. If the children are inclined to wander, there are dogs that are trained in tracking. The use of dogs in therapy has not yet been tested to assess its effectiveness in comparison to traditional one-on-one therapy with a therapist.
Future research will probably compare therapy without and with dogs as companions in order to really prove its effectiveness. I would also be curious to know how the social skills learned with the animals are able to generalize to social skills with peers. An eleven- year-old child with Asperger’s syndrome explains in an interview with CBS how his dog has been beneficial to his life. “She helps me, she calms me down, she lets me know she’s there when I’m about to have a meltdown. Anybody who has autism, anybody in the world would just benefit from this. She’s just like a healing dog.”