Are autism service dogs smart?

A story in last Sunday’s New York Times ponders whether service dogs help humans because they are smart, or simply because the rigorous training they go through makes them want to please the person on the other end of the leash.

The matter of what exactly goes on in the mind of a dog is a tricky one, and until recently much of the research on canine intelligence has been met with large doses of skepticism. But over the last several years a growing body of evidence, culled from small scientific studies of dogs’ abilities to do things like detect cancer or seizures, solve complex problems (complex for a dog, anyway), and learn language suggests that they may know more than we thought they did.

At the risk of sounding unsophisticated, I have to ask: who cares why our service dogs help us? I’m just grateful they do! And I’m sure Michelle O’Neil, the author of a blog at Bark Magazine, feels the same way. O’Neil’s daughter Riley has autism, and the Bark blog follows the two of them as they train with Jingle, Riley’s new autism service dog.

Day 3: Today we got into the meaty stuff. Behavior disruption! This is the whole point of having a service dog for Riley, to help her with the meltdowns. Eventually, hopefully, Jingle will be able to redirect Riley before the escalation occurs. Today, a 4 Paws staff member indicated she would be role-playing a child crying (which sent Riley running from the room covering her ears before the scene even unfolded). The dogs are taught to nuzzle, to put their head in the child’s lap, or to go “over,” which means putting their whole body across the child’s lap for deep pressure.

Watch Riley meeting Jingle on YouTube and tell me if you think Jingle does her work because she’s smart, or because she’s obedient. And … do you think it matters?


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  3. Patty Dobbs Gross Says:

    Hello Robert and Beth,

    I agree that a true problem here is the expense of an autism assistance dog at this point in time; this cost is a true cost, for to do this work correctly it takes a top notch breeding/socialization program, a huge volunteer commitment to keep puppy raising and socialization costs down, talented (and expensive) trainers at critical points in the placement, a budget that support an indepth screening and socialization/education program specific to the child and family being served, a quality follow up program and money for the inevitable emergencies or turning on a dime moments when the placement is interrupted due to the child or the dog not responding according to hopes and dreams…failure for us is very expensive, both financially as well as emotionally.

    It is very, very hard to get funding for this work from large giving organizations, as they prefer to spread their funds like butter over a large group of children to be served, not just thousands of dollar going to one child/family, and you are correct to know most families we serve at North Star hold small community based fundraisers for family and friends to raise the necessary funds.

    A society is judged by how well it takes care of its most vulnerable members, and I feel that if this emerging field is not better supported and understood (studied at the university level), the atmosphere will be ripe for abuse and the dangers that come with cutting corners in this work. Dog bites to a child are a real danger here, as the same issues that come between a child on the autism spectrum and his or her peers are apt to come between them and their dog (i.e., lack of ability to grant appropriate body space, sudden intense noises, tendency to be inappropriate in physical encounters). Education of the child to increase their skills interacting with the dog, an expensive screening process as well as close supervision fo the developing child/dog team are all necessary parts of this work for the safety as well as effectiveness of the assistance dog placement.

    North Star has taken a strong role in helping to educate others about this emerging field and to pave the way for other fledgling organizations to provide quality, and hopefully well supported, assistance dog placements to children on the autism spectrum by way of helping them up the considerable learning curve here. We have created over 100 successful assistance dog placements in our last decade of incorporation, and my book, THE GOLDEN BRIDGE: A Guide to Assistance Dogs for Children Challenged By Autism or Other Developmental Disablities (Purdue University Press), can be ordered best price from

    Please visit us at and let me know if you have any questions for me…and I thank you in advance for your kind support.

    Kind regards,

    Patty Dobbs Gross
    Executive Director
    North Star Foundation
    We help children find their way.

  4. Beth Finke Says:

    You hit on a point that really bothers me about autism assistance dogs –they are so expensive! I am blind and use a Seeing Eye dog, thanks to generous donations these dogs are subsidized – I paid $150 for my first Seeing Eye dog and subsequent dogs cost only $50. It can cost a person with autism tens of thousands of dollars to get an autism assistance dog, and unfortunately I do not know of sources for financial aid. Schools that train autism assistance dogs are all relatively new and not as established as guide dog schools for the blind, so the autism assistance dog schools do not yet have a long history of fundraising. Seems lots of people who want autism assistance dogs do their own fundraisers –I often hear of bake sales, galas, and other events to help defray the cost.
    You might find some of my previous posts about autism assistance dogs helpful –my first was called “What do Autism Assistance Dogs Do?” You can link to it here:

    Many who commented to that post had ideas of schools you might want to look into. One woman who commented is the Executive Director of North Star Foundation, an American organization that breeds, trains and places assistance dogs with children who have autism. She’s written a book called “THE GOLDEN BRIDGE: A Guide to Assistance Dogs for Children Challenged By Autism or Other Developmental Disabilities.” I must admit, I myself have not read this book, but if you are interested you can order this book directly from Purdue University Press at,
    Or for best price from, she says all proceeds from the book go to support their nonprofit work.
    She offered to answer any questions anyone might have, here is her contact info:

    Patty Dobbs Gross

    Another post I wrote, called “More on Autism Assistance Dogs”
    highlighted some dog training methods.

    Hope this helps, Robert –

  5. robert carpenter Says:

    I would like more information on these special dogs for my son with autism and is there any kind of financial help to get a trained dog for children with disabilities? THANKS

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