Service Dogs for Children with Autism or Other Developmental Disabilities

NEADS Social Dog Program, for Children Ages 8 to 16

For children with autism or other developmental disabilities, the NEADS Social Dog Program can make all the difference. Children with autism or other developmental disabilities can often have a hard time fitting in and making friends. Dogs won't judge a child; they don’t care how popular a child is or how he or she forms sentences. The constant companionship and friendship of such a loving creature can help a child build confidence. 

Because of the highly personalized matching process, we require all applicants (child and a parent or family member) to come to our NEADS campus for an in-person evaluation and in-take interview.

Service Dogs in our Social Dog Program accompany their partner to doctor's appointments, restaurants, sporting events, and other public places. Many children who have a hard time coping with change find that having a constant companion can help them deal with transitions from place to place and can add a bit of consistency to each day. In this respect, the dog serves as a focal point for the child. Parents are also able to help their children learn to read body language and learn empathy for others by using the dog as a model. Because our dogs are confident and happy to be in new situations, they are great examples for children.

The Service Dogs in our Social Dog Program can also be effective social ice breakers. Often children with autism or other developmental disabilities have trouble relating to or opening up to others, but when a well-trained Service Dog is present, people ask predictable questions that have answers a child can memorize. People may ask things like: "What is your dog's name?" "What is the dog’s breed?" "How old is your dog?" These questions are asked frequently and with repetition, so the child can gain confidence in social situations.

Parents can also utilize the Service Dog at home. Assigning daily chores such as feeding, brushing and cleaning up after the dog can teach a child responsibility and routine. The chance to play ball with the dog or practice some commands can be a great motivator. Lower-functioning children can also learn how to string together certain motor skills during daily routines. For example, the act of dressing the dog in his or her cape and leash requires a series of finite motions. Routines like this can help children practice intricate physical motions that, when linked together, perform a useful task.

The Social Dog Program requires that a parent or guardian (also known as a facilitator) must accompany the child and dog team at all times. For this reason, these Service Dogs do not attend school with the children. The level of involvement of the parent or guardian depends largely on the age and ability of the child receiving the dog. Ultimately, the facilitator is responsible for the well-being of the dog and the success of the team.

NEADS selects Service Dogs for the Social Dog Program for their special chemistry with children. All Service Dogs are gentle, tolerant and well trained, but they each have their own personality that can be matched with an appropriate child. Some children may benefit from a dog that seeks out attention and elicits play. Other children may require a quiet, somewhat reserved dog to make them feel more comfortable. The type of dog that best suits a child's needs is determined during the interview process. Again, due to NEADS' highly personalized application, evaluation, and matching process, we require an in-person interview with the child and a family member at our Princeton, MA campus.

What may be the most amazing is the joy for one little boy who now has a friend to play with and a companion that is teaching him responsibility and how to respond to someone else's needs.
Mary Greendale, Grandmother of 10-year-old Jake, pictured above with Basket