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Q&A #7: Autism Service Dogs

Posted Aug 19 2011 6:28pm
Q: Have you ever considered using a service dog? I have heard that people are training dogs to assist people with autism now. What are your thoughts about this?
- Jen

A: Okay, confession time: I have to admit it. I think service dogs are the most amazing animals ever (with the obvious and biased exception of my own lovely cats). Whenever I see one working, I want to stop the person and just barrage them with questions. "Did you train your dog? If you didn't, who did? How did you learn to work together? What has your dog been trained to do?" As well as the obvious, "Oh, aren't you the most gorgeous dog..." Because service dogs always seem to be calm and clean and polite, and even the scruffiest dog looks beautiful when they're clean and calm and polite.

Of course, I know better than that. Service dog owners want to get on with their lives just like I do and it's not polite to stop one and interrogate them; anyway, the dog is trying to do his work and would probably not like being disturbed. If everybody did that, they'd never get anything done, dog or no dog! So my curiosity has to be limited to online friends and occasionally real-life acquaintances who have service dogs.

There are some people on who have autism service animals. I know of at least one dog, one cat, and one lizard. (No kidding. And yes, .) There are probably more. There are definitely quite a few people who, like me, have well-behaved pets who are emotional support animals.

Service animals are mostly dogs. But .

Hmm, I should define my terms here
Emotional Support Animal: A pet who has no special training, but provides help to someone with a disability or a physical or mental illness. As the name would suggest, the animal is primarily there for companionship and to offset the emotional effects of mental illness and often isolation. ESAs don't have many special privileges, except that they are allowed into "no pets" housing and the owner is not required to pay a pet fee. However, if the pet causes any damage, the owner must pay for repairs. ESAs are not considered true service animals and as such are not allowed into public areas where pets are not allowed. My cats are emotional support animals, not service animals, because they are not trained to go out in public and help me there. While I'll admit I usually cope better when I'm touching a cat, these particular cats are not trained for it, and it'd be pretty mean of me to try to force them.

Therapy Animal: Often a dog, but it can be just about anything (though I imagine snakes, mice, and tarantulas would be excluded on principle!). A therapy animal is a well-trained, calm, often quite empathetic animal who works with an owner to visit the sick, disabled, elderly, traumatized, or those in emotional crisis. A therapy animal is like an emotional support animal, except that instead of helping the owner, they work with their owner to help multiple people. Many nursing homes, mental hospitals, and pediatric wards have resident therapy animals. Most therapy animals have no special training beyond advanced obedience training, but some are trained to do tricks, mostly for the purpose of entertainment (as we all know, laughter is good medicine).

Psychiatric Service Animal: This class of service animal provides help to people with mental illnesses. They are true service animals, and are allowed into all areas where their owner may go (with the obvious exception of places where the animal's presence would be considered a hazard--you would, for example, not take a dog onto a roller coaster). Like all service animals, they must be well-behaved, clean, and not disruptive; if they are disruptive, the owner of the property has the right to eject them just like they would any disruptive customer. They may or may not not have any special training (beyond the advanced obedience training that service animals need to be well-behaved and non-disruptive), though some have advanced training. A common job for a psychiatric service animal is to provide companionship and emotional grounding for someone who has an anxiety disorder, especially agoraphobia. With an animal companion, these folks often find it much easier to leave their homes, and it increases independence because they don't have to take a human with them.

Service Animal: The big class of animals trained to provide help to physically or mentally disabled people. Like psychiatric service animals, they must be very obedient, calm, and clean. These animals all have special training related to a specific disability as well as the general training that makes them polite and obedient in public. They are mostly dogs, but quite a few non-canines have edged their way into this category. Miniature ponies are strong and can guide the blind or pull wheelchairs; assistance monkeys, with their clever fingers, can help anyone who lacks manual dexterity. A few cats--most of whom have trained themselves rather than the other way around--are certified service animals. And there are even more exotic types: One woman has a who can warn her of muscle spasms that she's not usually aware of until they start to cause problems.

Specific service animals includeGuide animal: Usually a dog; occasionally a horse. Guides low-vision or blind people.
Hearing animal: Almost always a dog. Alerts the deaf/hard-of-hearing owner about things they can't hear.
Seizure-Alert animal: All kinds of animals have shown a talent for this, though as always dogs are the most common. Seizure-alert animals have a natural ability to tell when their epileptic owner will have a seizure, and will warn them beforehand, allowing the owner to avoid injury. Seizure-alert animals have a natural talent and are not trained; in fact, many started out as pets who showed their talent, and were thereafter trained as service animals.

Why'd I go through all of this, when the question was about autism service dogs? Well, look back at that stuff. Autistic people might benefit from a service animal in any one of those categories. I've even met both blind and Deaf autistics.

My ESA cats are the obvious first thing to explain. I didn't choose to be a cat owner; my landlord had said "no pets" and a year later I was still obeying that stricture, when nine-month-old Tiny came into my apartment. (Tiny, misnamed by the neighbor kids, actually weighs about fifteen pounds and is a long, sturdy cat who can easily put his paws on a table with his hind feet still on the floor.) For a while I tried to find him a place to stay; I had him neutered and vaccinated, and listed him on cat-centric sites. But nobody wanted him, and secretly I was glad. Eventually my landlord found out and let me keep Tiny. He wasn't doing any harm; he was quiet and clean and knew where he was allowed to scratch and where he wasn't. Tiny and I got to know each other very well. He's now three years old and we are in a sort of symbiotic relationship. He knows my routine and reminds me to get up. I know what he's afraid of (which is a lot of stuff--everything from thunderstorms to sneezes) and can remind him that he's being a silly cat and there's no danger. Christy was originally a foster cat, but after years of trying to find her a home, I had to face up to the fact that a seven-year-old shy calico girl wasn't going to be picked over the cute kittens; so I finally told the shelter I'd adopt her for good.

Tiny and Christy provide several very useful services to me. They are companions to whom I can talk, who won't judge me for being odd. They won't mind if I don't talk, and they don't mind if I speak entirely in simplified pidgin with a vocabulary of about twenty words--after all, who cares if I tell my cat, "Suwantsa fuds?" rather than, "Hey, while I'm making this tuna sandwich, do you want a taste?" (Tiny would reject the offer; he only likes his cat food. Christy enjoys a few licks of tuna water, though.) Yeah, I still have a tendency toward neologisms. Nowadays, though, only my cats really get them full-blast!

Therapy animals are something I don't have a whole lot of experience with; one of the times I was hospitalized, though, they did bring in a big old Golden Retriever to spend some time with me and the other patients. It was a nice diversion from the boredom of the mental ward. It was nice to see something that wasn't clinical and impersonal.

Autistic people often do have comorbid mental and physical conditions, all the way from epilepsy to social anxiety disorder. An autism service dog often does more than just autism-related tasks because autistic people usually have more than just autism.

So, an autism service dog can be an emotional support animal, a psychiatric service animal, and a regular service animal all at once. They can do everything from leaning up against you to help reduce overload, to pulling you back before you step into the street, to nosing you when you get stuck in a freeze or repetitive loop, to just being there and making it easier for you to deal with the world. Many autism service dogs work with children who have trouble with socializing; because a dog is easier to interact with than a human, the dog is good practice for the child and can even be a topic of conversation with other kids who would otherwise be intimidated by the odd autistic child.

But don't let me lecture on this: There are people who know more about autism service dogs than I do.

Check out--in which Wrong Planet poster ASDogGeek explains what her service dog Nim helps her with.
--By the same poster, with quite a few videos showing off her dog and explanations about how they work together.

It makes sense to me. Dogs are bred to interact with humans. There are a lot of theories about how dogs came to live and work with humans; but all of them agree that the dog's primary characteristic, the one that has been emphasized over and over in breeding, generation after generation, is that the dog must be able to understand humans, read their feelings and their actions, and work together with them. Dogs have done some pretty amazing things thanks to that sensitivity. They've pulled kids out of burning buildings; they've made themselves indispensable to farmers and hunters; they've been trained to find bombs, drugs, or people. It's not that they're especially smart; as far as animals go, dogs are smart, but not the smartest--not as smart as most wolves, in any case. We work with dogs rather than wolves, not because dogs are smart, but because dogs are trainable. They are exquisitely sensitive to what humans do, and respond easily.

You see, then, how useful an autism service dog can be! When you are a youngster just figuring out what this "people" thing means, a dog will not care that you are autistic. He'll simply watch you, learn to read you, and start responding. You, being new to the whole socialization business but entirely capable of understanding cause-and-effect, see the dog responding to you, and start to experiment, responding to the dog. Sooner or later there's a back-and-forth going on... a conversation. And that's a fundamental skill for any autistic child. True communication, rather than saying the right words in the right situation, is indispensable; and a dog is built to communicate, has been bred for thousands of years to communicate with humans.

Later on, when you're talking and you're older, a dog can still help. A service dog can be there as a constant support for you in unfamiliar, jarring environments. He can help when you're overloaded and about to step into the street without looking. You can ask him to lean against you when your sensory system is jangling. Quite a few people find it easier to talk and to think when they are in contact with an animal. A dog can even make the difference between group-home and independent living.

Autism service dogs are absolutely cool, no doubt about it. They're expensive, though; and like any dog, they need time and care and attention.

Why don't I have an autism service dog? Well, I don't really need one. Sure, it might be cool to have one, but as far as things go, I'm managing all right on my own. There's not much I can't do that a dog would allow me to do--so it wouldn't be that much of a benefit. My cats are a huge benefit, but they're doing what I need just sitting at home, being themselves, being the little fuzzy creatures I can come home to and not worry about having critique my every move.

I do want a dog, someday. I don't want to cram a dog into my shoebox of an apartment, so I'll have to wait until I have a large enough place that a dog won't have a problem stretching out in it. I'd like a pretty big dog--not a huge one, but Golden-Retriever-to-German-Shepherd-sized. One big enough not to have a problem walking as long as I wanted (and maybe pushing me to go further than I intended). A smart one, that could be taught lots of useful things. I don't care if it's a mutt or a purebred and will probably adopt a shelter puppy (I'd adopt an adult, but I know I'm not a dog expert yet). I like dogs, just as I like cats--they're a lot more overwhelming and in-your-face than cats are, but you can't blame them for that. Judging a dog by cat standards is just as silly as judging an autistic by NT standards!

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