Dogs and Autism
Kratu is my assistance dog. I am what’s called an owner trainer. I found the whole assistance dog world very hard to navigate, it was confusing and unhelpful in places too. One experience was very hurtful.
Here is some information from people I know, who are excellent at what they do, and whom I trust to provide accurate, up to date and most of all the right information for anyone who would like to look into getting a dog to become an assistance dog, training one, or just researching before making any kind of commitment.
It is a commitment, it is hard work. The end result for me was Kratu and his support, help gave me so much more freedom. He was the catalyst for a huge life change for me.
We did things that I never dreamt were possible. There will be ongoing articles about autism, dogs, how important they are to families, autistic people, children and introductions to understanding them a lot better.
Communication is so important to get it right as I know from often getting it so wrong!
Learning how to communicate with a dog, their body language, when they are stressed, scared, nervous, happy, excited and how to respond is the key to a healthy balanced relationship with them.
Diet, nutrition, exercise and a lot more to come. Doing the best I can for my best friend is the least I can do, I set out to learn, research and educate myself, and I did.
I am happy to share with others, the key to canine communication, caring for the canines that in turn help us navigate life in an often difficult, strange and sometimes scary world.
The following information is a great place to start and will help inform and guide you to making the best decisions if you decide to go ahead and welcome a dog that will become an assistance dog into your family.
The following information has been shared by Hilary Armour, Chief Executive at Dogs for Autism:
There are four ways of getting an autism assistance dog
1. Apply to a charity who will supply you with a fully trained dog
- The pros are that the charity cover most if not all of the cost, professional trainers will train your dog, there will be aftercare support for life.
- The cons are that the dog always remains the property of the charity officially, it can be very difficult to get on the list for a charity dog and there can be a long wait (often a number of years). Only Dogs for Autism supplies dogs to people over the age of 10.
The charities who train Autism Assistance Dogs are Dogs for Good, Support Dogs, Dogs for Autism and Helpful Hounds
2. Buy a fully trained autism assistance dog from a ‘not for profit’ organisation who will provide you with a trained dog.
- The Pros are that you will be supplied with a professionally trained dog – after care and support will be available but there may be a cost involved. The dog will belong to you. Because it is a ‘not for profit’ you can fundraise quite easily to help pay for your dog.
- The dogs are expensive at upwards of £10,000 although this is a realistic cost, if the dog becomes ill and can’t work or dies you would need to buy another one! There is still a waiting list.
Two well established organisations are Autism Dogs CIC and Supporting Paws.
3. Buy a ‘ready trained dog’ from a company who provides ‘trained dogs’
- The pros are that you have a dog who has been given some basic training so it will be easier than getting a puppy
- The cons are that it is expensive, and there is no way of knowing if the dog is suitable as an assistance dog except for the word of the very persuasive vendor. You will still need to ‘owner train’ the dog to become an assistance dog.
I do not know of any reputable companies who do this and I would never recommend this as a route.
4. Buy your own pet dog and train it yourself – become an ‘owner-trainer’
- The pros are that you can start your journey very quickly, You have control over the process, you can start with either a puppy or a dog. There are organisations who can help you train your dog to become an assistance dog.
- The cons are, if your pet dog turns out not to be suitable (it may be nervous of certain things or really not enjoy doing public access for instance) then you are left with a pet dog and no assistance dog. You will need to fully commit to the training of the dog so time and capacity may be an issue.
Pawsable.com specialise in teaching owners to train autism assistance dogs – autism is their speciality.
Other organisations include Helpful Hounds who also have an owner trainer scheme and Sherlock Hounds.
Details can be found on their website:https://www.helpfulhounds.org.uk/
Each organisation works slightly differently and has a different cost structure so it is worth doing your homework!
Things to look out for and avoid….
- It is worth applying to the charities and doing what you can to get on their lists as a few years may feel like a long time now, but autism doesn’t go away and time flies by.
- If you are going to owner train – particularly if you have children, be acutely aware that sometimes puppies and autistic children are a really bad combination. Many autistic children can’t make the link between the unpredictable and frankly pretty scary little land shark that bites their hands, pulls on their trouser leg and chews their favourite toys with the lovely calm 6 year old Labrador at their aunty ’s house whom they love. Please never assume that an autistic child will forgive a puppy it’s foibles because puppies are cute. Building the bond between the child and the dog is crucial, and you really need to get some advice in advance from one of the organisations above if you haven’t had a dog before.
- There are some breeds which are more suited than others to the role.
- Sight hounds and scent hounds such as beagles, basset hounds, Hungarian vizslas and pointers are naturally driven to hunt and not natural autism assistance breeds
- Guarding breeds such as German Shepherd dogs, Rottweilers and Dobermans are incredibly sensitive to stress and anxiety and are not naturally suitable breeds to assist people with autism
- Terrier breeds are highly motivated to hunt and chase and are hard to train as assistance dogs.
- The breeds that tend to work well are the gundog breeds such as Labradors, Golden retrievers, spaniels, poodles and mixtures of those such as labradoodles, cavapoos, Cavachon’s etc. They are biddable and easily trainable but this does NOT mean they are ‘easy to train’.
Before getting a dog please remember that dogs bark (end of story— dogs bark!!!), they shed their fur, they need walking twice a day in all weathers, they roll in and eat unspeakable things, and sometimes you ask them to do something and they completely ignore you!
They are sentient beings, they have a personality and will, and they will need at least two years of consistent training input and above all PATIENCE and understanding when things don’t go according to plan.
Because of this, even though they may love dogs, a full time assistance dog is not always the right choice for an autistic person.
Dogs will not always follow your schedule in the way that you want them to.
When you own a dog you need to have some ability to be adaptable to its needs when they don’t coincide with yours and to be able to manage unexpected change – or at least have strategies to cope.
Hilary Armour, Chief Executive at Dogs for Autism