Autism, defined as a developmental disorder that affects the brain’s normal development of social and communication skills, can be the cause of many behaviors that are challenging to cope with (for both the person affected by the disorder and his/her family members). For years, “service dogs” have been trained to help care for those who have been hindered by a disability. Whether it is a seeing eye dog, or a pup that has been trained to assist a handicapped person with everyday chores, it’s easy to understand how canines have come to be known as, “man’s best friend.” This week, Wisconsin Pet Care is taking a look at a new kind of service dog – the autism dog.

Those who have seen an autism dog in action will tell you that they look a little different than your typical service dog. Instead of being led on a leash, an autism dog has a person tethered to their body. Their main purpose is to be a physical “voice of reason”. If a child with autism, for example, decides to bolt away from her parents, the service dog will have been trained to use his body weight to counterbalance her weight (in hopes of stopping her or slowing her down). Other benefits of having an autism dog in the house include:

*Enhances social interaction behaviors: While it is oftentimes difficult for those affected by autism to develop relationships, a dog can be the common thread in forging human bonds. Other children will naturally be intrigued by a dog, making the child affected by autism more approachable and easier to socially connect with – thereby affording the child more opportunities to develop language and social skills.

*Calm: As you well know, just petting your companion can ease any tension you may be experiencing. It’s the fur-factor! A bad day doesn’t feel quite as bad after a few minutes of belly rubs and kisses. An effect of autism is social anxiety. This can cause a host of behavioral issues that make it difficult for the child affected with autism to relax. A trained service dog knows what to do to calm down the agitated child (as well as provide reassurance to mom and dad).

*Safety: This is, most often, the catalyst that encourages parents to bring an autism dog home to their family. Since the child is tethered to the dog, there is less instance of this child running off. Even more helpful, though, is the fact that the service dog is trained to alert mom and dad should their child wake up in the middle of the night and/or whether the child is ever in danger.

What if you already have a dog and think that he is up for the task of training as your child’s service pup? There are some companies that will take your own dog into consideration. However, he will have to pass a series of tests in order to qualify. Once the dog is ready to go into training, you can expect it to take up to 4 months for your pup to complete. This sounds like it could be a lot of time invested in waiting, however there are many things your dog will have to learn in order to be an effective protector. One of the most compelling skills autism dogs will learn is to recover children who do happen to run away from their parents. Quick and efficient search and rescue helps to prevent potential harm to the child. Because Autism is a spectrum disorder (meaning that it’s effects can vary from each child), dogs are trained in accordance to the child’s individual developmental issues – providing customized care..

Autism, physical handicap and sight impairment aren’t the only medical conditions that benefit from the presence of a dog. Next week, Wisconsin Pet Care will dig deeper on the topic of “How Pets Help Heal Us”.