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Assistance Dogs and Autism Ranking: Insufficient/Mixed evidence

Current Research

Description of Studies

We have identified six articles* published in English-language, peer-reviewed journals which evaluate the efficacy of assistance dogs as an intervention for children and young people on the autism spectrum.  

The studies we identified included almost 400 children and young people on the autism spectrum aged from one year old to 14 years old. Individuals with specific diagnoses included people with autistic disorder, Asperger syndrome or pervasive developmental disorder - not otherwise specified.  

Some of the children and young people were verbal, some were non-verbal. Some of them had one or more additional conditions such as mild-to-moderate learning difficulties, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, asthma and epilepsy.

All of the studies looked at the use of an assistance dog as a standalone intervention, with the exception of the study by Groomes et al (2014). This study compared two social skills groups, one of which provided access to a single assistance dog if it was needed. In all of the other studies, the assistance dog lived with the family in the family home. 

In the family studies, the family had normally had the dog for several months, the length of time ranging from 6 to 36 months. The exception was in the study by Viau et al (2010) where the family had the dog for four weeks and it was then withdrawn to see what effect this would have on the family.

Most of the dogs were provided by specialist organisations, who also provided training and instruction to the family on how to look after and use the dogs. Some of the studies specified the breed of dog used but in most cases they did not nor did any of them specify the age of the dogs.

It is not clear from most of the studies whether the participants were receiving any other interventions (such as speech and language therapy or medication) at the same time as they had an assistance dog.

Three of the studies used a group design, which compared a group of people with an assistance dog to a different group without a dog. The other three studies used a single-case design, where there was no group who did not have a dog.

*Please note: We have not included articles with fewer than three participants on the autism spectrum, articles which did not examine the efficacy of assistance dogs as an intervention for people on the autism spectrum, or articles on the use of dogs in pet therapy (because this is a different kind of intervention).

Study Outcomes

  • The study by Burgoyne et al (2014) reported on a survey of 164 parents/guardians of children on the autism spectrum, half of whom had an assistance dog and half of whom were on a waiting list for an assistance dog. The parents who had a dog believed their child was significantly safer from environmental dangers, perceived that the public acted more respectfully and responsibly towards their child, and felt more competent about managing their child.
  • The study by Burrows et al (2008) was a small qualitative study of 10 parents of children on the autism spectrum who had an assistance dog. The parents felt the dog protected their child from danger, made public outings and family activities easier, and helped to improve their social recognition and status.
  • The study by Groomes et al (2014) was a small randomised, controlled trial with 14 participants. It compared adolescents on a social skills course with other adolescents on a social skills course who also had access to the same assistance dog. It reported that the assistance dog might have helped adolescents on the autism spectrum and other family members to improve their social skills and increase their emotional well-being.
  • The study by Fecteau et al (2017) was a large, controlled trial of 98 families of children on the autism spectrum who had an assistance dog or were waiting to receive an assistance dog. It reported that the presence of a service dog in the family had an effect on parenting stress, as well as on their wakening and morning cortisol levels (a marker for stress). 
  • The study by Smyth and Slevin (2010) was a small survey which reported on the day-to-day experiences of seven parents living with an assistance dog for their autistic child, and that of the whole family. It reported a range of different benefits for the children including improved safety, companionship, positive social acknowledgement and development of motor skills. Benefits for parents and family included decreased anxiety about the child’s safety, increased family outings and positive social acknowledgement.
  • The study by Viau et al. (2010) was an alternating trial of the effects of assistance dogs on the cortisol levels (a marker for stress) and behaviours of 42 children on the autism spectrum. It reported that the average cortisol levels did not change when assistance dogs were introduced but that the cortisol awakening response levels decreased significantly. It also reported that the number of problematic behaviours reported by parents decreased after the introduction of the dogs.
Updated
31 Jan 2019
Last Review
01 Jan 2019
Next Review
01 Jan 2022