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. NEADS Service Dogs are trained in a variety of tasks that can address a range of issues facing a child with autism and his or her family. These include socialization skills, behavioral skills, life skills, and fine and gross motor skills.

NEADS selects Service Dogs for the Social Dog Program for their special chemistry with children. All NEADS Service Dogs are gentle, tolerant and well trained, but each has its 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.

Because of this highly personalized matching process, we require all applicants (child and a parent or family member) to come to our NEADS campus in Princeton, MA for an in-person evaluation and in-take interview. If you are more than 3 hours from the NEADS campus, we can begin the process with a Skype interview.

How is a Service Dog different from a family pet?

A Service Dog is not a family pet. The presence of a family pet provides comfort, while a Service Dog provides specific task work to address the symptoms of autism or other developmental disabilities.

Here are some key differences:

  • Task training – Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a Service Dog must perform a task specific to a person’s disability. Tasks for a Service Dog for a child with autism or other developmental disabilities can include Visit, Lap, Nudge, and Speak.
  • Public access – The team (parent/child/Service Dog) has public access according to the ADA. This means the team is allowed entry to public places, including restaurants, grocery stores, and other places a family may go.
  • Consistency and reliability - Behavioral training and socialization provides assurance that the dog will behave consistently and reliably at home and in public.
  • Teaching tool – The Service Dog provides a focus for the parent as they build specific skills in the child. A parent or guardian (also known as a facilitator) accompanies the child and dog at all times and is ultimately responsible for the well-being of the dog and the success of the team.

What Does "Task Trained" Mean?

One of the hallmarks of a well-trained Service Dog is that it consistently and reliably performs the tasks for which it’s been trained. For children with autism or other developmental disabilities, tasks can include:

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    Visit

    The Service Dog will rest his head on the child’s lap. This can calm or interrupt an unwanted behavior.

  • nudge

    Nudge

    The Service Dog can flip on a light switch, mitigating a child’s fear of the dark.

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    My Lap

    The Service Dog will put its front two paws onto the child’s legs. The My Lap command can be given while the child is seated in a chair, or the dog can come across sideways while they are on the floor, to give the sensation of pressure. The deep pressure can help with sensory integration.

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    Speak

    The child can use this task to communicate with a parent. Because the Service Dog will only bark on command, the parent knows that when the dog barks, the child needs assistance.

How can a Service Dog help a child with autism or other developmental disabilities?

Socialization Skills

Interacting with a Service Dog can help a child learn to interact with people and respond to someone else’s needs.

A Service Dog can help with…

Conversational skills - The Service Dog becomes the focal point for socialization and can facilitate conversation in any environment the child is with the dog, from the holiday dinner to shopping at the supermarket.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 learn rote answers, which can be a bridge to connecting with others. As the child grows more confident, conversations can take place through and about the dog.

Eye contact- A Service Dog is trained to make eye contact. When a child is comfortable looking into a dog’s eyes, this can translate into making eye contact with people.

Empathy & social cues - Parents can help their child learn to read body language and learn empathy for others by using the dog as a model. By learning to read the dog, the child can learn to read other people, their body language, facial expressions, and social cues.

Communications skills - The two-leash system, where a child and parent each hold a leash, allows the parent as facilitator to teach the child to talk to the dog to give it a command.

Fine & Gross Skills

Everyday life with a Service Dog can help a child learn and improve motor skills

A Service Dog can help with…

Fine motor skills -Taking on and off equipment (cape, gentle leader, leash), brushing the dog's teeth and brushing the dog's fur can help with a child’s dexterity

Gross motor skills -Daily exercising, throwing a ball, and playing games with the dog can help with a child’s gross motor development.

Behavioral Skills

Living with a Service Dog can lessen the frequency and severity of behavioral and emotional disruptions

A Service Dog can help with…

Regulating emotions – Task work such as “visit” or “lap” provides a tactile way for the child to soothe him or herself.

Easing transitions – Transitions are often difficult to navigate for children with autism and other developmental disabilities. A Service Dog can serve as a focal point, for example, when the child first returns home from school or is anticipating a doctor’s visit.NEADS Service Dogs accompany their partner to doctor's appointments, restaurants, sporting events, and other public places and help the child deal with these transitions. For some children, exercising their dog becomes a transitional tool that allows them to more easily move to the next activity.

Mitigating fears - Tasks can be used to help a child with his or her fears. For example, the task of turning on a light switch can be used if child has a fear of the dark.

Life Skills

Caring for a Service Dog can help teach a child responsibility and good hygiene and healthcare habits

A Service Dog can…

Encourage self-care tasks – The Service Dog is a teaching tool. Assigning daily chores such as feeding, brushing and cleaning up after the dog can teach a child responsibility and routine. Assisting with this care can translate into an awareness of and interest in his or her own self-care.

Reduce resistance to going to the doctor and other appointments – Parents can use taking the dog to the vet as a model for the child’s visit to a doctor, therapist, dentist or other professional.

If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.

Dr. Stephen Shore

When is a NEADS Service Dog right...

... for you and your child with autism or other developmental disabilities

For families with children with autism or other developmental disabilities, the quote from Dr. Stephen Shore rings true: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”

Just as every child with autism is unique, so is every Service Dog program. To that end, NEADS asks that you consider the following before you proceed. If you decide to apply, there will be a series of pre-qualifying questions to help determine if a NEADS Service Dog may be right for you and your child.

The NEADS Service Dog...

  • Is a highly trained Service Dog, placed between the ages of 18-24 months after extensive training
  • Is not hypo-allergenic. NEADS Dogs are Labrador Retrievers who weigh between 50 and 75 pounds.
  • Is trained to respond to oral commands only
  • Does not go to school with your child since the parent is the trained facilitator.
  • Is not expected to be tethered to your child.
  • Is not expected to alert to or to stop unsafe situations, such as your child leaving the house or darting into traffic.

Your child...

  • Has a diagnosis of autism or other developmental disabilities.
  • Is not a frequent eloper.
  • Does not put him/herself in unsafe situations, such as leaving the house or darting into traffic.
  • Is between the ages of 8 to 15 at the time of application.
  • Does not have a major psychiatric diagnosis (including PTSD) or history of trauma.
  • Can demonstrate through the use of touch, voice, or play an ability to build a relationship with the dog.
  • Can participate, with support, in public outings.

As the trained parent handler...

  • You can commit to making time in the child’s and your life to devote to this partnership, regardless of other family or work obligations. The bond between Service Dog and child needs to develop based on the child’s interaction with the dog, but the dog may always look to the parent for assurance. Helping your child and the NEADS dog create and maintain this bond is critical to the success of the team.
  • You recognize that your child and the Service Dog will never be alone in public and that you are always present as a facilitator. This includes the dog will not go to school with the child.
  • You understand that the dog can only be alone for 4 hours each day. NEADS Dogs are trained in 24/7 environment w/loving care around the clock. We have learned that if a dog goes into the home in which people aren’t present, the dog can become distressed and unable to do the work it was trained for.
  • You understand that NEADS trains with a 2-leash system, in which each of you are holding a separate leash. This means that the parent and child are always together when in public with the dog.
  • You are not looking for a dog that is tethered to your child or will alert you when the child elopes.
  • You anticipate that you can safely manage your child’s behavior in a public setting while safely handling a dog. Remember, even a highly trained Service Dog is looking to you (the adult) for direction and commands.

Your family...

  • Understands that the Service Dog is a tool that can be used to help your child with autism or other developmental disabilities and is not a family pet. The Service Dog’s primary relationship will always be with the child, with your continuing guidance and support.
  • Does not have any members with allergies that may be triggered by the presence of a non-hypoallergenic dog.
  • Is prepared to maintain the training of a Service Dog and can commit to the long-term expense of caring for a dog for its working and retirement life, which can be up to 12 to 14 years.
  • Has the ability to make the time to integrate a Service Dog into your daily lives, taking into account the demands of family life and work obligations.