What is an Autism Service Dog?

By Kaelynn Partlow. Title image courtesy of Kelli Birch.

Autism is a complex developmental disability that is characterized by social-communication difficulties, restricted repetitive behaviors, interests and activities. The disorder affects everyone differently. As the saying goes: “once you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism”. This is to say that not only is autism a broad spectrum, but also that the same symptoms present differently according to the individual experiencing them.

Common Difficulties That Can Come with Autism

Many people on the autism spectrum have difficulties with sensory integration. They often experience heightened senses, meaning a loud sound can actually cause physical pain in the ears. Bright lights can cause headaches and a bad odor could cause gagging or vomiting. Difficulty with communication is common, and it is estimated that 40% of autistic people are non-verbal. So while the majority of the autistic population can speak vocally to at least some extent, they may still struggle with non vocal communication. Reading someone else’s facial expressions and body language is a common difficulty. Working out others intentions, and view point is also challenging for those on the spectrum. It is estimated that up to 50% of people on the autism spectrum run/wander away from their families or caregivers. This is a dangerous behavior that can sometimes result in serious negative consequences.

Gastrointestinal problems, sleep disorders, learning disabilities and seizures are also reported at a higher frequency in autistic people. Autistic people often deal with isolation due to a variety of reasons, which can cause depression. While autism can sometimes have its advantages, it’s certainly no picnic, even for those who are considered “high functioning”.

Autism Service Dogs

Autism Service Dog in Training Sampson

Sampson: Autism Service Dog in Training. Courtesy of Kaelynn Partlow.

There are several beneficial therapies, devices and resources for those with autism and their families. These tools are designed to ease symptoms and promote independence. One tool that some choose to use has four legs and a tail. They’re called autism service dogs and they can be highly beneficial to many people on the spectrum.

In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act protects the rights of a service dog user. According to the ADA, a service dog is defined as a dog that has been specifically trained to preform tasks/work that directly relates to mitigating the handlers disability. This could include things like guiding a visually impaired handler around an obstacle, alerting the handler to a drop in blood sugar or retrieving a dropped item for someone with physical limitations.

Legal Requirements

This specific training is what makes a dog, a service dog. It is a popular misconception that service dogs in the United States must carry ID or certification. This widespread myth is largely due to the fact that many scam sites have popped up online, claiming to be the certifying body of service dogs everywhere. This is simply not the case. None of these purchasable certificates, cards or tags hold any legal validity.

Scam Registries

These companies cannot discriminate between the online registration of an animal or a dirty sock. However, the sites look pretty convincing, and are typically some of the first few things that come up when you begin researching service dogs. For someone new to the idea of having a service dog, this is typically where they’re lead to first. They’re often scammed out of anywhere between $25-$165 dollars. When their purchase arrives in the mail a few days later, they believe that their dog is now “official”. However, had they sent in a photograph and information on their sock, the sock would be just as “official” of a service dog.

These websites have scammed consumers and businesses alike. Many businesses are also lead to believe service dogs must be registered, and sometimes will incorrectly ask a handler to provide them with such documentation. Like many new handlers, these businesses are misinformed and need to be educated on the Americans with Disabilities Act, which states that there is no legitimate, legal certification.

Like many new handlers, these businesses are misinformed and need to be educated on the Americans with Disabilities Act, which states that there is no legitimate, legal certification.

Why are these fake registries harmful? Because many individuals use them as a means to pass their pet dog off as a service dog. Some people do it to get around a pet fee at a hotel, while others just think it’s fun to bring Fluffy shopping with them. In any case, it’s illegal, and in some cases, punishable. Sometimes a business may deny access to a service dog team that does not provide them with “documentation”, because they’ve had previous experiences with people who believe their documents are valid.

Why don’t we have a registry system? When the ADA was written, it was designed with people’s privacy in mind. It would be discriminatory and a violation of privacy for disabled people to be required to provide documentation for the medical equipment they choose to use. (Yes, service dogs are legally considered medical equipment, not pets).

Considerations When Choosing to Partner With a Service Dog

One thing to consider while looking into getting a service dog is the fact that the general public can be ignorant when it comes to assistive devices. They often point, stare and sometimes ask invasive questions or even make rude comments. Most people aren’t used to seeing an animal in a public place of business, so they sometimes react in inappropriate ways. For people who don’t like lots of attention or have social anxiety, walking around with a service dog can sometimes worsen these issues. It is not uncommon to be stopped by strangers, a few times in a given outing. Usually it’s well intentioned conversation, but it can make a quick errand take much longer than it should have.

When you have a service dog for a hidden disability, your disability becomes obvious due to the presence of your furry helper. People are often intrigued, as service dogs for invisible disabilities are still a relatively new concept.

What Do Autism Service Dogs Do?

Most people are aware of the jobs that guide dogs do, because they have been around a bit longer, and many of the major guide dog schools have brought awareness through campaigns and advertising. Many are unaware of what autism service dogs are capable of and what they offer to those who use them.

Autism Service Dogs for Children

Autism Service Dog Pepper and her handler Austin

Austin and Service Dog Pepper. Courtesy of Amy Saunders.

The tasks for autism service dogs vary depending on the individual and their age. A service dog for a child typically has a different job description than a service dog working for an autistic adult. The sole purpose of a service dog is to increase a person’s independence. Children by nature, are not very independent, whether they have a disability or not. This is why it’s generally not advisable to get a service dog for a very young child. They are not meant to be babysitters or caretakers, that is always the responsibility of the parents. Service dogs are to increase someone’s independence. They should not be used as a substitute for treatment.

That said, autism service dogs can and do work successfully for many older children, and many dogs do assist parents. We must note however, that an animal, no matter how well trained, cannot take the place of a human caregiver. This is important to consider when coming up with a task list for your child’s autism service dog.

The Dangers of Tethering

Some service dog organizations use a method called “tethering”, wherein the child is tied to the dog. The idea is that if the child wanders away, the dog will basically act as an anchor to the child, preventing them from getting away. On the surface, it sounds great. However, a closer look reveals dangers. If the child has a particular destination in mind, they may become frustrated by the dog not allowing them to move. They may turn around and aggress towards the dog in order to have free movement. This is unfair to the dog who can’t move away due to being tied to the child. This is not a job that an animal should be in charge of. The child’s immediate safety should be a job that is up to their parents or caregivers, not an animal. 

The child’s immediate safety should be a job that is up to their parents or caregivers, not an animal.

Alternatives to Tethering

Some alternatives task for tethering, to mitigate wandering/running behaviors are alerting the parents of a child that has escaped, body blocking a child that is running, or if worst comes to worst, tracking a missing child.

A dog can be trained to wake caregivers to a child leaving their bedroom or house in the night. Body blocking is used as the child is leaving. The caregiver will send the dog to chase the child, and then stand in front of them, to stop or slow them down. This can be life saving, as a dog is much faster than humans, and can usually get there first, before something tragic happens. In the worst case, a service dog can be taught to track down a missing child by their scent.

Deep Pressure Therapy

SD Harper performing DPT

Service Dog Harper (@thevelvetgsp on instagram) performing DPT. Courtesy of Emily King.

One thing many autism service dogs have in common, regardless of the age of their handler, is they learn something called Deep Pressure Therapy. DPT is when the dog lays on the persons abdomen, or legs, using their body weight to apply pressure to the handlers body. This is used to calm the person during time of anxiety or a meltdown. It works by forcing the person to take slow deep breaths, and prevents hyperventilating. Additionally, autistic people frequently report feeling calmed by heavy pressure on their bodies.

Autism Service Dogs for Adults

For adults, an autism service dog may be trained to help them get ready for work or school in the mornings. They may alert to alarm clocks, and insist that the handler get out of bed, and stay on task while getting ready. For those with motor skill deficits, a service dog may be taught to assist with dressing and undressing by gently pulling the clothing a certain way. They may tug open a heavy door or untie shoelaces.

Another common task for autism service dogs; crowd buffering. It’s exactly what it sounds like. The dog is trained to position themselves between the handler, and a group of people, providing them with a little extra personal space. This is useful in preventing sensory overload. Many people on the spectrum dislike being at a close proximity to strangers because they don’t like the feeling of accidentally brushing up against them, smelling body odors or perfumes or being close when they’re speaking loudly. Using a service dog that is trained to crowd buffer can eliminate these situations by providing the handler with a few extra inches of personal space.

Other Helpful Tasks

For adults and children on the spectrum, staying focused in a busy environment can be difficult. They may get lost or overwhelmed. An autism service dog can be taught to guide their handler through a crowd, much the same way a guide dog for a visually impaired person would. The dog can also be taught to follow a specified person, to prevent the handler from getting lost.

The tasks of an autism service dog vary depending on the persons age and needs. A service dog is trained specifically for the individual they’re assisting. While they aren’t for everyone, they’ve been highly beneficial for so many! If you think you or someone you love may benefit from having a trained autism service dog, reach out to service dog handlers, trainers and organizations for advice for your specific situation.

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Kaelynn Partlow
Kaelynn Partlow was diagnosed with autism, and multiple learning disabilities and ADHD at the age of 10. As an adult, she works as a behavioral therapist, helping children on the autism spectrum. She's in the process of training her second autism service dog, as her previous dog has retired.