It seems as if the role of service dogs has greatly expanded in recent years. Everyone is familiar with guide dogs for the blind and hearing assistance dogs by now, however there are also dogs who can detect low blood sugar in diabetics (click here) and gluten detecting dogs for people who are sensitive to the substance (click here). However to me, as a psychologist, I find it most exciting to see newly developed service dogs that can assist people with mental and emotional problems, such as dogs that assist Alzheimer's and dementia patients (click here). Another fascinating area involves dogs helping people with various forms of autism (click here). Because of these interests I found myself totally captured when I viewed a piece of video that a friend had forwarded to me. This one minute clip dramatically shows how a service dog can stop a self-destructive "meltdown" in an Asperger's Syndrome patient.
Asperger's Syndrome is an autism spectrum disorder that is considered to be on the high functioning end of this range of psychological problems. People with this condition may have high levels of intelligence and verbal ability, however they have difficulty with social interactions, they may have a restricted range of interests and they sometimes show repetitive behaviors and uncoordinated motor movements. Self-injury can be one of the most distressing and difficult behaviors that the family and caregivers of people with autism spectrum disorders may face. This can take many forms, such as the individual hitting or slapping themselves, banging their heads on surfaces, biting themselves, burning themselves, scratching, cutting, skin picking and so forth. In the case of Asperger's individuals, because they may be of average or above average intellect, such self injurious behaviors often go unnoticed. These actions often occur in isolation since the patient has learned to hide such behaviors from other people. The cause of these self-harming behaviors remains as much a mystery as is the cause of autism itself. It may be rooted in a chemical imbalance or based upon other physiological problems; however the triggers for any specific episode often involve frustration, a sensory overload, feeling rejected, or anything which raises the level of emotional arousal.
The video clip that you will see below involves a 24-year-old Arizona woman named Danielle Jacobs. She describes what initiates her episodes of self-harm saying "It's like a computer. There's too much input, there's not enough output, you lose control and you crash." She goes on to say "This is what's considered a meltdown." She took the video clip herself, and in it you will see her sobbing and smacking herself in the head and chest repeatedly before collapsing on the floor. Her service dog is a Rottweiler by the name of Samson. What you will see is that Samson continuously tries to stop her from hitting herself and then consoles her when she's on the floor.
One incredible aspect of this whole case is that Danielle trained Samson herself. She adopted him from an animal rescue in Phoenix, Arizona, four years ago when he was just one year of age. Remember that Asperger's syndrome people are often of high intelligence and are very focused. She says "I trained him to alert to depressive episodes and self-harm." She explains "I had prior experience because I worked with shelter dogs and trained them in obedience." She points out that "He responds to action instead of emotion, that's how I trained him."
Having a large dog, such as the 120 pound Samson, is important, partly because he can rear up and he is strong enough to interrupt her self-destructive motions with his paw. However Danielle's episodes of self-destruction are also often followed by a panic attack. So Samson has been trained to lie across her when the self-harming episode subsides. Danielle says "His weight has a calming effect. He makes me acknowledge what's going on — that kind of snaps me out of it." This is consistent with other observations that people with autism or Asperger's syndrome often feel more comfortable with additional weight pressing against them. For example Temple Grandin, a professor with autism, invented a "hugging machine" that provides adjustable pressure that makes many people with autism relax. What is used more commonly to achieve this effect are special blankets with pockets in which weights can be placed. When the patient is covered with one of these it seems to provide a calming heavy tactile stimulation. Samson serves that same function for Danielle by pressing his weight down on her.
You can find the video clip below. It is disturbing, but it represents an event that can occur several times a month for an autism patient like Danielle. The intervention of the dog terminates the behavioral episode before real damage can be done.
Danielle says that she wants to help others with autism and thought that if she shared her experience it might raise public awareness. She feels that people who observe autistic patients having a public meltdown may judge them harshly — not recognizing that this is a case of an unavoidable loss of control. Danielle hopes someday to get a job with a dog-training company and also hopes that she can use her abilities to train other service dogs like Samson.
[In a sad update to this story Danielle Jacobs was shot and killed by Mesa, Arizona police on 6 February 2016. Police responded to a call reporting a suicide attempt. When they arrived they found Danielle apparently experiencing another Asperger's attack and waving a knife. They interpreted this as a threat and shot her. Danielle's mother is now caring for Samson.]
Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome
Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission