Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Autistic Kids Train Service Dogs While Healing Themselves

The bond between puppies and autistic kids benefits both of them.

dog canine human animal bond autism serve handicap disabilities

If you walked into the Lionheart School in Alpharetta, Georgia you would see what appears to be a group of 39 ordinary children running around and playing with seven Golden Retriever puppies. The kids seem to be engaged in the typical interactions that go on between children and young dogs. However there is nothing typical about this situation since all of the children are suffering from autism. The true surprise here is that these kids are helping to train future service dogs, while at the same time this set of playful puppies is providing therapy for the communication and social interaction problems associated with the children's autism.

Autism is a complex problem which shows up by the time a child is around three years of age. The most important symptoms involve difficulty with communication and reduced attention to social stimuli. Autistic people respond poorly to social signals and even their own name. They show less eye contact with people, and talk considerably less than normal kids. These children are less likely to exhibit social understanding, approach others spontaneously, imitate and respond to emotions, or take turns with others. About a third to a half of individuals with autism do not develop enough natural speech to meet their daily communication needs. Yet in this room full of puppies you can see a lot of apparently normal social interactions involving the children and the dogs.

Lionheart School is part of a new partnership with the Paws4People Foundation which trains service dogs to assist disabled children and adults. Most recently the foundation has been training service dogs to help war veterans suffering from both physical and psychological damage. Together the school and the foundation created the "LionPaws Puppy Development Center." One of the center's stated aims is to get their future service dogs to help as many people as possible, while the dogs are in training, as well as afterward.

One of the key aspects of producing a service dog is socialization. Dogs that have not been adequately socialized can show fearfulness or aggression which would make them useless as service dogs. Socialization is simply the process by which a young dog has safe and non-frightening experiences with a variety of people places and situations while it is still young. Typically, at seven or eight weeks of age puppies start to become shy and wary of unfamiliar people and situations and this tendency must be dealt with before the puppy reaches 14 to 16 weeks of age. Fortunately, the process of socialization is really quite easy. The idea is to safely and pleasantly expose the puppy to all sorts of different people, strangers, children, people carrying bags or operating machines, and so forth. The pups should also be exposed to a variety of different places, different rooms, paved streets, parking lots, public buildings, and any other places that the dog is likely to encounter. Lots of noise, playful encounters, different surfaces are important experiences. Being touched and spoken to by many people under differing conditions will also help accomplish the task. This is where the autistic kids come in. They will have the puppies for the first four months of their lives. The kids hold the puppies, talk to the puppies, bath the puppies, put them on play swings, have them run through play tunnels, take them on field trips and more. All of this serves to socialize the dogs and prepare them for more advanced obedience training.

But the benefits are not one-sided. Elizabeth Dulin, cofounder and head of Lionheart School says "It's just amazing! When our kids interact with the dogs we see reduced anxiety levels and they become calm and focused."

For example, on field trips to places like department stores, the children bring the puppies for socialization. However, the young pups attract the attention of other people who then come over to greet or pet them. In the process these people tend to start conversations with the children. The conversations and social interactions cover predictable territory with questions like "What is the dog's name?" "How old is the dog?" "What kind of dog is this?" and so forth. Since the questions are familiar, and the answers are manageable, the children can safely engage in social interactions and communication without stress or anxiety. This builds their confidence and helps to focus their attention on social interactions and allows them to practice their social skills and use language in a safe and rewarding way.

Sarah Rosenbaum, the director of the LionPaws Puppy Development Center, also notes that the results "have been nothing short of miraculous!" She claims that she has seen non-verbal children actually become chatty around the puppies. She summarizes the situation by saying "The children are providing for the puppies, and the puppies are providing for the children."

Once the puppies are socialized they will go on to help other groups of people before their final placements. When the dogs leave the autistic children their next stop is at an inmate intervention program. Here prisoners in good standing teach the puppies well over 100 commands. The inmates also train the dogs to help disabled people with various tasks such as opening and closing doors, turning lights on and off, picking up dropped items and so forth. The inmates who do this training get a sense of purpose and accomplishment, but they also receive recent job experience that can help them find employment when they are released.

The final phase of training happens at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington. Here university students can get college credit for making sure that the dogs are fully prepared for their jobs and their new homes. Many of these dogs will find placement as service dogs with war veterans who are physically disabled or who are suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. So the seven puppies currently at the Lionhead School are destined to help autistic kids, incarcerated inmates, undergraduate university students, and finally disabled individuals — all during the process of their own education. That's quite a service career!

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

More from Stanley Coren PhD., DSc, FRSC
More from Psychology Today
More from Stanley Coren PhD., DSc, FRSC
More from Psychology Today