The use of service dogs or other animals for assistance is a relatively new concept for people with autism. Dogs are the most commonly used animals and are worth considering for your child. A service dog can reduce the risk of elopement, aid in socialization, and protect in a public environment. If that sounds like your own private police department and hospitality host rolled into one, you're right. It is!
The Canine Companions for Independence organization has centers across the United States. Their website is www.cci.org. If your child is accepted for their program a family member must spend two weeks training with the child. Your child should be the only one allowed to handle or play with the dog. Others should be asked not to pet the dog.
Before you get so enthusiastic that you run down to the local dog adoption center, several things must be considered. Anytime an animal is brought into your home, whether it is trained by an agency or you train it yourself, it is a decision that must be weighed carefully. Remember that a service dog is there to work, and work he will; whenever your child and his service dog are together, the dog is working. But a dog is still a dog; it has to be allowed to play, dig holes, torment the family cat, and do all the things dogs do. Your success will be determined by how well you integrate the needs of the child and the needs of the dog.
It is vitally important that a child not be frightened of large dogs before you get a service dog. If your child is very young and you are considering this option for the future, expose your child to larger dogs that you know are comfortable with children. It can be alarming for a child who has never been around a large dog to suddenly have an animal at eye level. A hesitant or scared child will not bond with the dog, and no training in the world will allow them to perform as a good team.
When a child approaches a dog, he usually has open arms, totally unrestrained behavior, and tends to try to pet or hug the dog. A child will understand better how to interact with a dog if he has been raised with one. If you are considering having a service dog in the future, it could help to have a pet dog now.
One parent must be involved in the dog/child team. If there are many caretakers involved, this will be confusing for both the child and the dog. One adult who can supervise the team and provide the dog with direction, showing it what is expected at a given moment will help the dog perform to the best of its ability. Children best adapt to a service dog after they become toddlers and before they enter school for the first time. Although there are exceptions, of course, a child between the ages of two or three and six will be more receptive to the concept of dog/child teamwork. Also, pets are fun for kids and teach responsibility in caring for something other than themselves.
Dogs are still dogs, regardless of their occupation. It is important that a fenced yard be available for the dog so it can go outside for play and relaxation. Think of this dog as an employee as well as a family member and service animal. Everyone needs off-hours, and a service dog is no exception to this. Even the best-trained service dog is not above treeing a cat, burying a bone, or rolling in the mud. These activities also provide exercise that is essential to the physical and mental health of the dog.
The Department of Justice states that animals other than dogs may be used as a service animal. Cats, ferrets, and parrots are very helpful service animals with a child who has autism. With all pets, there are precautions to take; animals should never be kissed around the mouth and children must always wash their hands after handling a pet. Cat scratch fever can cause a serious infection and will need medical treatment.
Like any other animal, dogs can become ill or need preventative medical attention. Veterinary bills can be expensive. It is wise to have a bank account set up that you put funds into on a monthly basis to cover any expensive procedures or treatments that may be needed. Emergencies happen as well, and having that backup fund is akin to medical insurance for the dog.
Different breeds of dog require different grooming. A dog with a fuller coat will need frequent brushing to stay neat. Some children are interested in this, whereas others are not able or willing to perform this task. Of course, you can brush a dog regularly if you are willing to give the time required. Remember that nail clipping, dental care, and other grooming needs specific to a particular breed should be taken into account when a dog is being selected.
Different dogs have different dietary needs. Some dogs cannot tolerate certain foods, and high-grade dog foods are the best for a dog that is working full-time with a child. A working dog should not be allowed to become obese, and a child should be taught not to feed the dog table scraps.