Background and Research Design on Service Dogs for Children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder

Catherine Rollins, author
Dr. Deborah Ulmer, faculty advisor
awarded second place for best social science paper


“Background and Research Design on Service Dogs for Children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder” looks at current literature regarding the use of service animals, specifically service dogs, with children who have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It has been found through past studies that autism service dogs provide safety, social stability, and companionship to children with an ASD. Due to the lacking number of studies done on this topic, the proposed qualitative study “Service Dogs: Impacting the Lives of Children with an Autism Spectrum” has been developed in order to answer questions and solidify information regarding the benefits and impact that service dogs have on children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder from the viewpoint of their parent or caregiver. This proposed study seeks to obtain information through interviews with parents or caregivers of children with an ASD. Findings will be organized according to common themes and interesting personal statements would be shared as well. The importance of this topic and gathering answers to solidify the benefits of service dogs for children with autism is crucial so that future generations of children with an ASD may be able to reap the benefits of this unique treatment aid.

For the past 140,000 years, humans and dogs have shared common areas with each other, thus enabling them to develop strong relationships with each other that would be passed down generation after generation (Solomon, 2010). Over the past 15,000 years, humans have spent time with dogs teaching them to carry out various tasks in order to make their own lives easier (Cohen, 2011). The introduction of service dogs more or less unofficially began after World War II in Germany where dogs were trained to aid blind soldiers around. The popularity of the service dog grew and eventually spread overseas to the United States where the first service dog school opened in 1929 (Cohen, 20110). (Where?)

Service dogs can now be seen all over the United States in public settings. They wear special vests that signify to other people that they are working dogs and should not be petted or played with. These dogs assist their humans as seeing eye dogs, hearing dogs, diabetic dogs, or autism dogs. Service dogs must go through rigorous training programs in order to be considered cleared to assist their human completely by themselves.

Over the years, service dogs have increased in popularity and are currently being trained for a variety of different uses for adults and children. In the past 50 years, dogs have started training in order to be placed with children who have an ASD. The dogs are placed with these children to benefit both the child and the parents. There are not many studies reported in this area to promote understanding of the benefits of service dogs for children with an ASD from the perspective of the parent.

The following sections of this paper will present current information regarding the use of service animals with children, focusing on service dog placement with children who have autism. Following a review of literature, a proposed study on how to obtain more information regarding how service dogs impact the lives of children with an ASD will be discussed. A discussion of the proposed study and conclusion about current findings are also presented.

Understanding Autism and Where the Use of Autism Service Dogs Currently Lies

Children with autism, also known as children having an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as it will be referred to for the remainder of this review, are children with a neurobiological disorder that affects them socially, developmentally, and emotionally (Alleva, Berry, Borgi, Cirulli, & Francia, 2013). Children with an ASD find it difficult to engage with their peers, connect with their family, or remain focused on an activity for more than a few minutes at a time. These children often are excluded from school or family activities because of their behavioral issues; however, the increasing placement of service dogs with children who have an ASD has begun to allow certain children to begin living a more normal life with their peers and family.

In researching, it was found that there are multiple healthcare professionals that believe there are benefits of using service dogs for children with an ASD, but these benefits have not been researched in depth. There are a handful of studies that have reported in recent years that investigate the benefits from the use of these dogs for the child from a parent, caregiver, therapist, or educational professional perspective, however many of these studies are dated or not in depth with having small study groups. This literature review focuses on the benefits of using animals for therapy in children with an ASD and the specific benefits that service dogs have on children with this condition. The purpose of this review is to present current thinking on the value of service dogs and to consider the value of additional research seeking to understand exact benefits to the child with ASD. This will promote better understanding of this emerging yet popular, and unique therapy aid.

Animals as Therapy Aids for Children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder

The use of animals as an alternative and or complementary therapy for children with an ASD dates back decades and is a technique that is use across the United States and around the world. Over the years, the use of dogs, horses, dolphins, llamas, rabbits, and guinea pigs in a variety of settings has been shown to provide a positive social engagement opportunity for children with this disorder (O’Haire, 2013). The animals “facilitate an environment” that nurtures personal growth and development through having physical contact with the animal as well as provides a calming effect on the child (Fortney, Sams, & Willenbring, 2006). It has been found that the animal can help “foster trust” between the child and other people around them such as peers or adults (Gilmer, Goddard, & Tilmer, 2015). Animals also provide a positive social engagement opportunity for children that are “socially isolated” like children with an ASD (O’Haire, 2013). Animal therapy in the classroom setting is becoming a popular idea across the nation, especially in “inclusion classrooms” which are classes comprised of developmentally age appropriate children and children with disorders such as autism. A collection of inclusion classroom elementary schools participated in a study that used guinea pigs as therapy animals in their classrooms to see what effects they had on the children, particularly those with an ASD. It was found that the guinea pigs aided the children with an ASD to want to interact with their peers when it meant the guinea pig was going to come out of its cage to visit. It increased the child’s interest in school when the guinea pigs were in the classroom (McCune, McKenzie, O’Haire, & Slaughter, 2014).

Children are able to learn from the animals they interact with by interpreting behavioral cues from them. The behavioral cues from animals are thought to be “less complex” than those of humans. It is through prolonged exposure to animals that children with an ASD will be able to “bridge” what they have observed in their animal interaction to the people they encounter (Fortney, Sams, & Willenbring, 2006). It is the hope that through exposure to different types of animals for varied amounts of time this group of children will be able to accomplish greater interaction. Literature supports that the use of canines with children experiencing any medical condition including an ASD can help them reap “physiological, psychological, and emotional benefits” from the relationship and that they will be able to unconsciously apply those benefits to other areas of their life (Gilmer, Goddard, & Tilmer, 2015).

Why Service Dogs for Children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder is Important

Autism service dogs are specially trained canines that support and accompany children as well as their families to provide “a constant in an ever changing world”, to provide “social opportunities and relationship development”, and to facilitate “skill development” (Dogwood, 2015). They differ from other types of service dogs in that they are trained to listen to commands not only from the person they are attached to, in this case being the child, but are also trained to listen to commands from the parents and to bond with s well as to bond with the child (Adams, Burrows, & Millman, 2006). These dogs become members of the family and they typically travel everywhere the child goes. The care of the animal is incorporated into the whole family’s daily routine (Adams & Burrows, 2005). The dogs are sometimes “perceived as quasi-children with nurturing, therapeutic capabilities” by the family as well (Solomon, 2010). The duties of these dogs also reach far beyond what they were trained to do because of the amount of time they spend with the family going out and because of the direct interaction they have with the child; they become attuned to the child’s personality and are able to alert parents to changes specific to that child (Adams, Burrows, & Millman, 2008a).

Two specific goals of using service dogs for children with an ASD are to increase the safety of the child and to develop more effective communication in social interactions. These two concepts are extremely important because they are two of the main problems that parents, caregivers, and teachers struggle with in caring for the child with an ASD. Due to the nature of their neurologically rooted condition, children with an ASD exhibit negative behaviors such as impulsiveness in cases of bolting or striking out (Correia, de Sousa, Lima, Magalhães, & Silva, 2011), have limited self-control, have decreased attention spans, and have trouble verbally communicating with others (Paschall, Rusnak, Ward, Wendell, & Whalon, 2013). It is the goal of autism service dog trainers to teach the dogs to prevent or decrease these negative behaviors so that the child can have an improved quality of life.

Regarding the safety aspect as a benefit of autism service dogs, children with an ASD tend to bolt or run away from their caretakers. They do not have a strong sense of what is an appropriate reaction to certain environmental stimuli, whether that is human voices, beeping sounds, light flashing, or other assorted distracting noises or colors. In the scenarios where these children are unable to handle their environment they tend to run away from what they cannot handle. This presents challenges to parents, caregivers, and teachers because the safety of the child is at hand; children with this type of disorder have been known to run out into busy streets or into trees to get away from the stimuli. These scenarios are where the service dog comes into focus because the dogs are able to provide an environment of “enhanced physical safety and security” for the child (Zane, 2011).

Autism service dogs are trained to not allow the child to pull them in the direction the child wants them to go in (Zane, 2011) and are attuned to the commands of the parent or in some cases a teacher or therapist that is working with the child in the presence of the dog (Adams & Burrows, 2005). The child is generally attached to the dog “with ropes or other forms of tethers” (Zane, 2011) so that when the child tries to bolt in one direction, the dog can use this as leverage along with its weight in order prevent the child from wandering off (Adams, Burrows, Millman, 2008a). While this is happening the dog can also alert the parent or child-overseer to the situation. Because the child is physically connected to the dog, this element of security allows parents to feel more at ease having their child out in public areas such as church settings, grocery stores, or anywhere else where there are large gatherings of people or new unfamiliar settings. The children are still closely watched by their guardians, but because the child is physically grounded to the dog and unable to undo the connecting mechanism, a safe environment is established and maintained.

The social ability of children with an ASD is lacking and proves difficult for parents, teachers, therapists, and peers to handle. Autism service dogs provide a unique service that is not quite understood by researchers that targets this very problem. Children with an ASD that are in the presence of a service dog, whether it be their own dog or a therapy session dog, have been noted to have increased verbal communication between themselves and the dog and sometimes between themselves and the people around them. In addition to verbal communication, nonverbal communication increases have been noticed in observing the relationship that the child takes on with the dog. While the verbal communication is wonderful and an accomplishment for some children, there are others that will never be able to accomplish this and therefore their nonverbal communication improvements are noteworthy. Interacting with dogs for this unique group of children has been described as “freedom from linguistic activity”, giving the child free reign of how they would like to interact with the dog (Solomon, 2010). They are not forced to try to verbally communicate and are left to talk to the dog or communicate nonverbally with them by petting or playing with them. Leaving the communication technique up to the child, many parents and therapists have been surprised because some of the children come out of their shell and begin talking both coherently and non-coherently to the dog. These social interaction milestones from their experiences with the dog have been found to carry over outside of therapy dog sessions or when a child is not around their service dog to when the child is around other people. Being able to interact with dogs provides and environment that is easy for children with an ASD to be comfortable and communicate (Solomon, 2010).

Other positive social implications of autism service dogs for children with an ASD include an increase in positive behaviors such as a playful manner, increase in smiles, and more eye contact (Correia et al. 2011) with a decrease in negative behaviors such as the tantrum outbursts or the “stereotypical” hand-flapping and humming (Fortney, Sams, & Willenbring, 2006). The mood of children that spend time with therapy dogs or their service dogs has also been noted to have improved to how it was before the child spent time with a dog. According to a study that looked at the number of times children with an ASD smiled with and without a dog, it was found that they smiled more times and for longer amounts of time when in the presence of a dog (Aoki, Funahashi, Gruebler, Kadone, & Suzuki, 2014). This form of nonverbal communication alerts parents, therapists, teachers, and healthcare professionals that there are positive outcomes and emotions occurring from the interaction, even if the child cannot verbalize them.

An important positive outcome of children with an ASD having a service dog is that it benefits not only the child, but the entire family unit. Many parents and siblings of these children are unable to all go out in public together or partake in family activities because of the uncertainty of the actions the child with the ASD. Having the service dog with the child provides a sense of security and ease to the parents of the child because they know the child is safe and that the presence of the dog is calming to the child and that the attention of the child can easily be redirected towards the dog. Also, because the dogs are trained to listen to the parents of the child, the parents are able to remain in control of situations more. Being able to partake in family activities is important for the child to have a sense of belonging and for the family to have a sense of normalcy (Solomon, 2010). This benefit is one of the main interest points for families wanting to set their child up with an autism service dog.

The Study

The proposed qualitative study, “Service Dogs: Impacting the Lives of Children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder”, will investigate the impact that service dogs have on children with an ASD from the viewpoint of the parent and or caregiver. There are very few current studies that look at this topic from this particular viewpoint so any data coming from this study will be significant. The research question, “How do service dogs that are placed with children with autism impact their life?” seeks to retrieve answers through qualitative methods. This study will be carried out during the months of March and or April 2016 and data will be analyzed and written up during the months of April and May 2016.

Criteria for inclusion in the study include: parent or caregiver of a child diagnosed with an ASD that currently has a service dog for this disorder, male or female caregiver, and the parent or caregiver must currently reside in the state of Virginia with their child. A combination of eight to ten parents and caregivers would be interviewed for the purpose of this study. A convenience sampling technique within the state of Virginia will be used order to carry this study out. Eligible participants will be obtained through a statewide search using resources like the Virginia Institute of Autism, Commonwealth Autism, and various autism societies that are located within the various geographical regions of Virginia to contact families with children who meet the criteria or to advertise the study through their organization. In addition to these sources, eligible participants will also be obtained through personal references.

Data collection will be performed for this study through interviewing the parent or caregiver with voice recording. The interviewee will be interviewed in a comfortable setting of their choosing away from their child. The interview time will not exceed one hour. The interview will have voice recording for data collection in order to gain a well-rounded view of findings and be used as a reference point for clarification after the interviews are completed. The interviews will consist of a set list of ten questions for the interviewee to answer and would be the same for all participants. The questions will be generalized so the parent or caregiver could elaborate as little or as much as they would like to; additional questions may be added to prompt further discussion of the questions listed. All questions will be given to the interviewee on a sheet of paper or by email one week before the interview so they can brainstorm answers and pick out stories they would like to share. Questions will include ones along the following:

  1. How long has your child been diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder?
  2. How long was your child diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder before they were able to get a service dog?
  3. How did you learn about service dogs for your child’s condition and how did you go about finding a dog to fit your child’s needs?
  4. What changes have you seen in your child since they have had their service dog? Positive? Anything negative?
  5. Has the service dog provided a sense of security or safety for your child?
  6. Where does your child take their service dog? Have you experienced issues with taking the dog places?
  7. How does the dog fit into your family dynamic?
  8. Does your child having a service dog provide you with a sense of peace or security?
  9. Would you like to share a fond memory of your child and their service dog?
  10. Would you like to describe a challenge you and your child have experienced regarding their service dog?

Responses and notes will be recorded on paper in the form of hand written notes. Recording of the interviewees verbal responses using a tape recorder will be used for the interview sessions. The recordings will be used later in order to interpret and clarify details from the interviews. No form of photography or videography will be used to document interviews. Interview responses will be compared and contrasted for each of the participants to look for common themes that point towards positive implications of the child having a service dog. A graph or chart will be developed after the data has been analyzed to determine the top five to ten benefits that parents and caregivers feel their child reaps from having an Autism service dog. Findings from this research study will be compared to findings from other studies with similar topics to draw conclusions and point out new data.

Limitations of this study include a convenience sample as well as the potential for unequal distribution of gender or age in the participants. Another limitation and area for continued research would be instead of carrying out a cross-sectional study would be to carry out a longitudinal study with the same focus. The convenience sample of this study as well as the cross-sectional design has to be done for time and financial constraints. If more time allowed, traveling to other states to research this topic with more participants would be beneficial as would continuing to study the original participant group over the years to see if the data changes over time.


As the popularity of service dog placement with children with an ASD increases, the need for concrete evidence establishing the benefits of this placement is necessary so that future generations of children with an ASD can reap the benefits of having an autism service dog as well. There is little current research circulating around that discusses how service dogs aid children with an ASD, so the need for this information is high. It is the hope of the researcher that the proposed study answers the question, “How do service dogs that are placed with children with autism impact their life?” by looking the parent or caregivers perspective of the situation. Conducting this research and analyzing the results, will result in answers that will be able to solidify assumptions of the benefits and impacts from a new angle and present new information regarding this topic.


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