Assistance dogs (also known as service dogs) are dogs that are specifically trained to help individuals with various types of disability. In many countries assistance dogs have special access rights, to ensure their owners are not discriminated against. Their use has now been extended to individuals on the autism spectrum.
An assistance dog is not the same as a therapy dog or a pet dog. A therapy dog is trained to provide comfort and affection to people in long-term care, hospitals, retirement homes, schools, mental health facilities, and other stressful situations to include disaster areas. Pet dogs may be trained or untrained and do not attract the accessibility benefits of an assistance dog.
Some assistance dogs (autism assistance dogs) are dogs that are specially trained to assist in the day to day life of the family with a child on the autism spectrum. It is important that the dog is recognised as a 'working dog'. Because of this the dog will work in a special harness that connects it to both the parent and the child.
The dogs are trained to lead from the front, acting on instructions from the parent, while the child is usually encouraged to walk alongside the dog using a lead attached to the dog. The child may also be in a harness.
The use of autism assistance dogs is based on the idea that the dogs offer greater independence to the child and parent. They ensure that the child is kept safe by preventing the child from running away. They also provide other benefits associated with dog ownership such as regular routines and social support.
Some people think that, in some circumstances, the dogs may also offer other benefits, such as encouraging the child to communicate and to be more sociable or enhancing the opportunities for the inclusion of the child and the family.
There is insufficient research evidence of a sufficiently high quality to determine if assistance dogs provide any benefits to individuals on the autism spectrum.
A number of anecdotal accounts suggest that there are few risks involved in the use of autism assistance dogs when placed in suitably selected families. There may also be some benefits in terms of sociability, and reduction of stress, an increased tolerance of dogs and greater opportunities for social inclusion. For these reasons we believe that further research into the use of assistance dogs for people on the autism spectrum is warranted.
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