Autism Spectrum Disorder study finds trained dogs keep children safer

Parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) report that assistance dogs keep their children safer and calmer and promote a more positive public reception.

Researchers at University College Cork, led by Prof Ivan Perry and Dr Louise Burgoyne of the department of epidemiology and public health, are the first to capture the views of a large group of parents and guardians on assistance dogs for children with ASD. The disorder is one of the areas in which assistance dog interventions have had most success.

The research findings suggest that the presence of an assistance dog can make parents and guardians feel more competent in managing their child and the dog helps to facilitate “normal” family functioning such as being able to visit a shopping centre.

Parents reported that assistance dogs were particularly valuable in prohibiting dangerous behaviour in their children such as bolting (known as elopement), which is characteristic of ASD.


The research, which has been published in the British Medical Journal, notes: "Assistance dogs complete a unique triad between parent/guardian and child. Typically, the child is attached to the dog via a lead (leash) and belt. The dog walks with the child but takes commands from the parent (handler). If the child tries to step off a footpath or attempts to bolt, the dog will use all his/her power to slow the child down."

As well as a tendency to bolt, public tantrums and the negative reaction from others are regarded as being some of the more difficult aspects of the behaviour of a child with ASD. “In this context, assistance dogs can provide a unique support by facilitating child safety and promoting positive public reception. Outings to public places can become less stressful and families can enjoy greater freedom and mobility,” the study authors noted.

A spokeswoman for the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind, which trains the ASD assistance dogs, said that since the programme started in 2005, it has trained 299 dogs. However, she said they were not accepting applications at the moment.

“Our waiting list has become too long so we have had to close it for the moment. Once it goes down again, we will reopen it. Training these dogs requires a lot of resources and more than 80 per cent of our funding comes from voluntary donations. If we had more resources, we could cut down our waiting lists,” she said.

Artistic licence for children with autism: page 5

Michelle McDonagh

Michelle McDonagh

Michelle McDonagh, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health and family