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Your ATN@Work in Saint Louis: Autism and Dog Therapy

This unique dog-therapy program is helping children with autism handle stress, develop social skills, even do their homework!

By developmental pediatrician Rolanda Maxim, medical director of the Knights of Columbus Child Development Center at the SSM Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center and the Saint Louis University School of Medicine. The center is one of 14 Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Centers across the U.S. and Canada.

A few years ago I had a “eureka” moment. I was watching my dog and realized what an excellent companion he was. He gave me unconditional love, made me happy and relaxed, and he was always ready to play with me. When I was walking him in the park, he became a magnet for children and neighbors. My circle of friends increased every day.

That’s when it dawned on me. Who truly needs such a companion to help them relax, play and make new friends? My patients with autism spectrum disorder, of course!

I was glad to discover that there was a small but solid body of research to support the benefits of interactions with pets for individuals with autism. (See “Autism and Pets: More Evidence of Social Benefits.”)

A few years ago, I began writing prescriptions for dog therapy to help my patients get trained service dogs. But I soon realized that the typical cost – $10,000 to $15,000 – put these trained dogs out of reach for most families. Even families who had the money found themselves placed on long waiting lists.

And so, we started our own dog therapy clinic and made it part of a training and research program here at our child development center.

Our dog therapy clinic has grown gradually. It now includes one developmental pediatrician, one psychologist, three volunteer dog trainers, one nurse coordinator and six therapy dogs. We call one of these wonderful dogs “Dr. Higgins.” He’s a star with his own resume, business card and appointment book. He even made the cover of local magazines including our medical center’s quarterly magazine (above right).

Signing up for dog therapy
Families interested in our dog therapy clinic fill out a questionnaire about their interests. This includes questions about any specific issues where they think a dog could help their child. Such issues have included providing support for social communication, independence skills, sleep, and decreasing anxiety around medical and dental exams and even haircuts.

How Higgins can help
We then schedule our dogs, dog trainers and a clinician to help the children with their personal challenges.

Take for example, a girl who is having difficulty with haircuts. She will come to the clinic and meet with Dr. Higgins. She might help Higgins put on a haircut gown. She even gets to cut a little of Higgins’ hair – which the handler deliberately keeps long for this purpose. We then bring Dr. Higgins to a mirror where he models his wonderful new haircut.

Many parents have told us how “helping Higgins get a haircut” has increased their child’s willingness to get a haircut, too. Sometimes, Higgins even accompanies a child to his or her appointment. When Higgins is sitting next to you, getting a haircut becomes fun!

In interviewing parents, we’ve learned of many other success stories, as well. They include:

* Decreased anxiety during behavioral therapy sessions

* Increased cooperation and decreased fear during medical exams, lab work and MRI scans

* Improved attention in school

* Improved social behavior and communication with friends

Parents have likewise told us about increased cooperation around such everyday activities as nail clipping and tooth brushing, chores, homework and bedtime.

Overall, we’re also seeing increased compassion and sense of responsibility, improved social manners and more-imaginative play. Dog walking, we’ve found, can be a great motivator to increase physical activity. We also see improvements in self-esteem and happiness in the children who participate in our program. We’ve found that many of these benefits are enhanced when children can practice the skills they’ve learned with a family pet.

Teaching safe behavior around animals
Importantly, we also use our dog therapy clinic to teach vital safety issues around how to approach a dog or other animal. Along these lines, we see that families need guidance on how to choose a pet that best matches their needs and ability to provide it with care. An important part of this discussion is the recognition that not every child and family will benefit from dog therapy.

Our research findings
As researchers, we’ve already learned a lot from our dog therapy clinic. For instance, we’ve learned that, in general, this type of therapy works best one-on-one rather than in a group. Also, we’ve seen evidence that dog therapy works best for individuals whose ability to understand language is at or above that of a typical three year old.

The objective benefits we’ve documented include decreased hyperactivity, greater facial expression, increased sharing of enjoyment with others and greater willingness to complete requested tasks.

Future directions
We’re so appreciative of our dog therapy team, especially our three volunteer dog handlers and their six therapy dogs. We look forward to our continued work with them.

Going forward, we plan to create and share guidelines that will help other medical centers create similar programs. This will include recommendations on how to evaluate patients, families, dog handlers and dogs to ensure that they are all good candidates for such a program.

We are also starting a research project that will evaluate how therapy dogs can decrease fear and increase compliance during a visit to the dentist. We look forward to sharing our results with you!

Editor’s note: Autism Speaks provides a list of local service-dog organizations in its online Resource Guide. Click on your state and look under the category “Services” at the bottom of the page.

* Learn more about the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network here.
* Find the ATN center nearest you 
* Explore our archive of ATN expert-advice blogs and news stories 


The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.