What do autism assistance dogs do?

I’m blind. I use a Seeing Eye dog to guide me safely to work each day. I literally couldn’t get around without her.

I know how valuable a service dog can be. In some cases, though, I don’t understand what specific things the service dog does to help with the disability.

A recent story in K9 magazine touts a British service dog organization trying to raise £1 million to train dogs to “help children with autism.”

Support Dogs has already trained the UK’s first Autism Assistance Dog with the support of Irish Guide Dogs, which has run a successful programme in Ireland for over three years. Lacey (a yellow Labrador) has been partnered with Paula Craik and her 5-year-old son Joe (who live in Dundee) and in the last year has made a tremendous difference to their lives.

The article doesn’t specify any single thing the service dog does for Paula and Joe that an average dog couldn’t do for them:

  • Improved behavior and socialization skills through acting as a constant companion and forming a unique bond.
  • Expands the child’s capabilities to experience more from life.
  • Calms the child thereby increasing attention span and improving aptitude for learning.
  • Reduces stress for all family members.

To me, the description sounds like what average dogs have been doing for years for families with autism. To qualify as a service animal under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a dog must be partnered with a person with a disability and individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of that person.

This article leaves me wondering what special work or tasks these autism assistance dogs will provide. Maybe that would help explain why it will cost £1 million to start a program to train them.


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  1. chinchilla facts animals Says:

    Today, I wenjt to the berach with my children. I found a sea shell and
    gave itt to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She put the shell to her ear annd screamed.
    There was a hermit ctab inside and it pinched hher ear.She never wants to go back!
    LoL I know this is completely off ttopic but I hadd to tell someone!

  2. Amy Says:

    I think it’s sad and wrong that we have now found a way to make money from enslaving another intelligent life. Why don’t we just keep using Afro-Americans as our slaves? Or is it that we feel as though dogs don’t have “rights” to live freely since they have no way to defend themselves against us verbally? From the time these puppies are taken away from their mothers to be “assistance dogs”, their right to a normal dog’s life is stripped. They are “trained” to do our bidding whenever WE choose. That is enslavement. Food for thought…enslaving anything is wrong!! We have the technology these days to come up with other ways to help the disabled.

  3. ASDoGeek Says:

    I am 23 and I use an autism service dog everyday. Yes while a lot of what she does is what an average dog can do, she calms m and helps me socialize she does things that pet dogs don’t do. Nim (my dog) is trained to remind me to take my thyroid meds in the morning (meds are not autism related). She will also Stop me from walking right out into the street as sometimes I don’t process the danger/ streets much like a seeing eye dog would do. Nim also helps me with fire alarms as I have 2 reactions to these. 1 (most common) the sound startles me and hurts my ears often causing me to become afraid and confused. Nim will nudge or paw me to redirect my attention and if I need it she will lead me out. The other reaction I have happens when I am doing something of my special interest or in a sound sleep, also when I feel over stimulated I might not process the alarm right away as I tends when absorbed in my special interest to block out most of the outside world. Here Nim will come and paw and nudge me till she has my attention and again if needed will lead me out. Reading people is also a major challenge for me so Nim is there as a protection. Not many people will mess with me with this dog. Nim will also calm me during a meltdown my crawling into my lap. Nim is also trained to find me if I get distracted in a crowed.

  4. Casey Sevene Says:

    Great…Please do…It really bothers me when people dont understand. I always like to say when someone refers to not knowing what a service dog can do for a child with autism…to me its like saying what can one do for the blind?
    Most children with autism have no concept of danger…they will just run out into a street. Just as a blind person would not know they were walking into traffic. They need assistance and guidence out in public just the same. I dont have 8 arms. I cannot hold a carriage…bags…a baby..and a 6 yrs old that is as stong as an 18 yr old!! And it is not fair to say “well then dont bring him out in public!” I have heard that comment before. Thats not right, we are trying to teach him social skills and safely so that MAYBE someday he will be able to be on his own.
    Its not just stores either. Think of the parks and the beach. We have a summer home down the Cape, and each time we attend the beach its a panic. Everyone must have there eyes on Josh at all times. If you loose sight even for one second he could be gone. Our hopes is that a service dog would stay with him and know to bark to alert us.
    There are many safety concerns in the world of autism. And if a service/safety dog can help with JUST ONE of these than that is a service we will be grateful for for life.

  5. Beth Finke Says:

    Dear Casey,
    Thank you for this VERY helpful comment. I must say, your comment is well-timed — since writing my post questioning what autism assistance dogs can do have learned a lot! And you are absolutely right, it turns out a MAJOR task for the dogs is preventing a person withautism from running away. I am putting together another blog post about this and may refer to your comment there –thank!

  6. Casey Sevene Says:

    I would like to leave another comment about what a service dog could do for a child with autism. I have a 6 yr old son who is autistic. We will be getting a puppy in 6 weeks that I will be training to be my sons service dog. For the last few years it has been a struggle to bring Josh into any type of shopping center, grogery store, library ect… With other children to keep safe also it is nearly impossible to chase a darting 6 yr old and leave your 2 yr old behind. I have to either tie Josh to me with some sort of rope or put him in a shopping cart so he will not run away. Of course being almost 7 and tall for his age he is just about to the point where he will not fit into any shopping carts anymore. So then what?? I tell you what. A dog that has been trained to listen to my commands about stopping, turning, staying and any other correction I give to keep my son close to me. I plan to have 2 leashes on the backpack harness that our dog will wear, one for Josh so he can act as if he is walking his own dog and I will have the other to be in control.There will be a smaller belt that will clip onto a safety belt that Josh will wear on his waist. If he is to run I can control that darting by telling the dog to curb and stay. This is the ONE task we hope our dog will do to help us keep Josh safe out in public. And I do think this is a job that is high up there on the list of what does a service dog do for a child with autism
    Thank you

  7. Patty Dobbs Gross Says:

    Hi Beth,

    It has been my pleasure to contribute to this discussion…

    Kindest regards,

  8. Beth Finke Says:

    Thank you *so* much for leaving such a thoughtful –and extremely helpful — comment on this blog post. I will suggest your book to our Autism Spokesperson network and see if any of them might be interested in reviewing it on our blog, thanks for letting us know about that.
    You are very generous to take the time to explain all this, and your words are very much appreciated.

  9. Patty Dobbs Gross Says:


    I serve as Executive Director of North Star Foundation, an American organization that breeds, trains and places assistance dogs with children who face challenges to help them meet their social, emotional and educational goals; we recently partnered up with Dogs for the Disabled to train an assistance dog for an English boy who is autistic as well as deaf. We have made over 50 successful placements with children on the autism spectrum to date, with our most recent being this special collaboration.

    At North Star, we breed specifically for a canine temperament conducive to working with children who face challenges…although canine behavioral genetics is still in its infancy, it is clear that some dogs are born with a superior knowledge of how to read social cues, as well as the ability to be tolerant with children, especially those on the spectrum…we then stress intelligent socialization for the pups we select to work with children, and this focus on both nature and nurture is what creates an ideal canine partner. We also teach the child to communicate with his dog even as we are training the dog to obey the child, and this twin teaching/training focus is at the heart of what we do at North Star.

    Could an average pet fit this bill? On occasion I hear of a wonderful family pet who just naturally related beautifully with a child, and I am certain people in life get lucky all the time, but all too often I have heard stories of family dogs growling, nipping or biting children with autism, for things like not granting enough body space or petting against the grain of the fur, which children on the autism spectrum are wont to do, can make many dogs testy if they are not properly prepared or socialized for this experience.

    For us, it is all about the bond and communication that develops between child and dog; task training takes a back seat to relationship building, although most of the training we do is pretty simple, it can get fairly complicated, such as when we taught a North Star dog to block a child’s flight …we even got this dog to block left or right on command…but not once was this skill ever employed, for the child we were serving stop bolting after participating in these rather rigorous training sessions…this to us is success, even if it came to us in a round about way…

    I have information available to anyone who is interested in our work, and have written a book, THE GOLDEN BRIDGE: A Guide to Assistance Dogs for Children Challenged By Autism or Other Developmental Disabilities (you can order this book directly from Purdue University Press at http://www.thepress.purdue.edu, or for best price from Amazon.com, with all proceeds from the book go to support our nonprofit work) Our website is also very informative, http://www.northstardogs.com, and you can see some North Star dogs in action on the following link:


    Please feel free to ask me any questions anyone might have, as education is an important part of our mission…

    Kind regards,

    Patty Dobbs Gross
    Executive Director
    North Star Foundation
    20 Deerfield Lane
    Storrs, Ct 06268
    “We help children find their way.”

  10. Beth Finke Says:

    Thanks for setting me straight on this — I had no idea autism assistance dogs were trained in search and rescue I am thinking of publishing another blog on this subject soon — stay tuned!.

  11. Lindsey Says:


    Just wanted to let you know that my son is Autistic, and will be recieving a service dog. You are correct in assuming much of what is done with the dogs could be done by most dogs… however, the average dog would probably not bark when my son tries to leave the house, or be trained in search and rescue, as a predominant tendency in Autistic children is running away and hiding. You also must take into consideration that Autistic children are prime targets for bullies, adult and children. A dog that could attend school with my son would deter people like that from making my son a target when I am unable to be there.

  12. Shabbir Says:


    That’s a really good point. Canine companions who don’t perform service functions have been successfully used in lots of non-disability rehabilitation situations for adults and while they aren’t service dogs technically, they do have a benefit.

    Perhaps someone from dogmagazine.com can be recruited to comment…

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