The Role Pets Play in Helping Autistic Children

Patrick Mahaney, VMD, CVA, CVJ
By Patrick Mahaney, VMD, CVA, CVJ on Apr. 30, 2013

We are at the tail end of April, which hosts National Autism Awareness Month, but awareness of the condition and the means by which animals can improve the quality of life of families with autistic children extends well beyond the month’s terminus.

Not having any children myself (but for Cardiff, my four-legged fur child), I cannot speak from direct personal experience of managing the challenges and triumphs associated with raising a special needs youngster. Therefore, I sought to gain the perspective of a long-term client and good friend, Lynn Pollock, who spoke about her parental views on autism and the relationship between autistic children and animals.


What do you feel are the strongest reasons for parents with autistic children to incorporate the presence of a pet or animal-based therapy into a child's life?

Many children on the Autistic Spectrum have sensory issues. Those autistic children that are sensory seeking seem to get great comfort from the tactile experience of interacting with an animal, be it a dog, cat, or horse. Those that are tactile adverse (resistant to touch) often are able to overcome their sensitivity by repeated exposure to a pet

In the instance of horse therapy, the child has both the sensory experience of getting tactile input from the horse and the experience of collaborating with the horse while riding to accomplish a goal — either a fine motor exercise, a gross motor exercise, or a communication/social skills exercise. Thus, the horse becomes a conduit for the child to learn new skills in addition to learning to ride a horse.

Involvement in animal caretaking, such as grooming, feeding, and walking is part of the therapeutic experience and teaches both empathy and responsibility.

What observations do you have as a parent of an autistic child about the relationship your child has with animals (in comparison to people)?

My observations are that animals are especially attuned to children having special needs in comparison to non-special needs people. My Labrador retriever, Olivia (see photo), has always given and continues to give a lot of latitude to my son with autism. She tolerates his erratic movements, lack of voice and sound modulation, and lends a calming balance to his exuberance.

Since autistic children can have issues modulating their voice or body movements in a quiet and calm manner that does not scare an animal, what are your suggestions for parents of autistic children who are interested in incorporating a pet or animal into the therapeutic process?

The choice of your pet is extremely important if you want the therapeutic process to be successful. There are definitely breeds that are extremely well known for their therapeutic/service dog potential because they are very trainable and have a calm demeanor; Labrador and Golden retrievers and German Shepherd Dogs are the most common examples.

That being said, any dog that is properly trained and has the right temperament could have therapeutic value to an autistic child. One exception — it is my opinion that an autistic child who exhibits aggressive or violent behavior should not have a pet until these behaviors are corrected and extinguished by a behaviorist. No pet should be subjected to threatening behavior and be expected to stay calm or feel safe.

Are you aware of any support groups that can help parents of autistic children assimilate the companionship of a pet or service animal into the family fold?

Organizations exist that train and place dogs, including A Dog Wish Foundation and Autism Service Dogs of America. I have seen many kids with service dogs that accompany them everywhere. These dogs are their conduit to connecting with the world. It's amazing.

Any final points on animals and autism?

The unconditional positive regard that animals are able to give is an invaluable experience for any person to have, but especially a child with a disability. These kids are so often unfairly judged and less-accepted than non-autistic children. Pets can be their much needed source of loving kindness

In addition, through this kindness, pets are much-needed role models for compassion and empathy. Pets also serve as models for appropriate social behaviors: following rules, consistency, calmness, loyalty, and even eye contact! Dogs can help children having reading problems, as kids read out loud to the dogs who sit and listen without judgment.

Parents of children with autism also experience isolation and judgment, so pets can be incredibly healing and comforting for human caregivers.


Thank you, Lynn for sharing your valuable perspective for those who may be in similar situations.

Do you have any experience with special needs children or adults and the relationship they have with animals? Please feel free to share your perspective.

therapy dogs, autism in children, dogs for autistic children

The special relationship between Lynn and her previous canine companion, Hershey

therapy dog, autism in children

Lynn's dog, Olivia

Dr. Patrick Mahaney

Image: jamiehooper / via Shutterstock

Patrick Mahaney, VMD, CVA, CVJ


Patrick Mahaney, VMD, CVA, CVJ


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