Though a relatively new area, therapy dogs for autistic people are being trained and used in many areas of the country.
To an autistic child, the world is often filled with loud distractions, bright lights, disorienting stimuli, and uncontrollable nervous impulses. These days, more and more autistic children are facing this challenging world with a loving, specially trained companion by their side: their therapy dog.
Though a relatively new area, therapy dogs for autistic people are being trained and used in many areas of the country, and the list of organizations that promote their use is growing.
How therapy dogs help autistic children
If you've ever watched a service dog help a person with a physical disability, it shouldn't come as a surprise that canine companions can also be trained to help people with autism. Here are some of the ways these dogs make life better and more manageable for children with autism:
Calming the child. Autistic children are subject to wild and random-seeming emotional outbursts. Therapy dogs that have bonded with autistic children have been shown to help keep them calmer. The dog must be trained to remain calm and supportive during the child's tantrum—and the child must understand that the dog is there for him to pet and hug. This may not be viable for all autistic children-dog partnerships, but it has been demonstrated to work in some cases.
Reducing repetitive motion. Many autistic children exhibit repetitive movements and behaviors, such as rocking back and forth. In some cases these mannerisms can become very forceful and last for prolonged periods of time. With a loyal—and well-trained—therapy dog to hug, some autistic children spend less time exhibiting repetitive movements. Therapy dogs have even been trained to recognize the onset of these episodes and interrupt the child.
Keeping the child from wandering off. Families with autistic children know that they must be ever vigilant because of their child's tendency to wander off. Therapy dogs are trained to keep these children from straying by circling them and barking to alert family members.
Being a soul mate. Dogs have earned their "best friend" status because of their uncanny ability to understand their master's emotional wants and needs. It appears that therapy dogs can also form this type of deep emotional bond with autistic children—a bond that transcends the ability of the child to express himself verbally.
Which dogs are best for autistic children?
The art of training these therapy dogs is still relatively new. As a result, organizations and trainers around the country have developed differing training programs and philosophies.
The North Star Foundation in Connecticut, for example, prefers to train puppies as therapy dogs for autistic children. They believe that puppies should be used "in order to facilitate the strongest bond possible, and to ensure the dog's training matches the child's needs."
Do some breeds make better therapy dogs for people with autism? Not according to Dr. Francois Martin, who has studied using animals to help children with neurological disorders express their emotions. According to Dr. Martin, "What I want is a dog who is very forgiving, people-oriented, and if a person is behaving strangely, the dog will look at the therapist and say, 'That kid is behaving strangely, but it's all right with me.'"
Where to get help
There are a number of organizations that train and provide therapy dogs for autistic children. These include Oregon-based Autism Service Dogs of America (ASDA), www.autismservicedogsofamerica.com. Located in Connecticut, The North Star Foundation (www.northstardogs.com) trains and places therapy puppies with autistic children and their families.
As your dog ages, you’ll likely notice changes in your best pal’s energy levels, routine and even muzzle. Older pets may require adjustments to help them get around, exercise and live their best life as a senior. One important aspect of caring for a dog entering their golden years is diet.
When it comes to diet, every dog has unique, individual needs, regardless of age. So, there's no one easy answer to the question of soft food versus hard food. Both types of food can provide your dog with the nutrition they need — as long as you feed your dog a high-quality dog food that’s nutritionally balanced and complete.
Signs Your Senior Dog May Benefit from Wet Food
If your dog has very specific health concerns, such as aging joints or weight issues, consult with your vet for more information about what type of food best addresses your dog's needs. That being said, there are a few reasons why you may consider switching your senior dog to soft food.
As your dog gets older, their teeth may become more sensitive, which can make chewing kibble more difficult and even uncomfortable. Switching to a soft food can help to alleviate your pet’s oral discomfort when eating.
However, if your dog is experiencing serious pain at mealtime from a condition like tooth decay or gingivitis, switching to soft food won't remedy the problem. Make sure you talk to your vet about oral care and dental treatment.
Digestion begins in the mouth with saliva, so if your dog has a tendency to scarf down meals, they may not be adequately chewing the food or adding enough saliva to it. Soft food can aid with digestion because it's more easily chewed.
It’s no surprise that wet food has a higher moisture content when compared to dry kibble. If your senior pup is prone to urinary-tract issues or simply needs a little help staying hydrated, canned dog food may be a good choice.
Aging dogs tend to have a slower metabolic rate compared to their younger years, which puts them at a higher risk of becoming overweight or obese. Many nutritionally balanced wet dog foods offer high protein content with fewer carbs than dry food, which can benefit older dogs with slower metabolism. Always talk to your vet if you have concerns about your pup’s weight.
While wet food may be less than appetizing to humans, the opposite is true for dogs! If your aging best friend has started turning their snout up to dry food, wet food tends to be more appealing to picky eaters. Mixing wet food and kibble offers your pup a variety of flavors and textures; try adding wet food as a topper on dry food for a real treat!
Whether you choose dry food, soft food or a mix of both, ask your vet before making any transition. And when it's time to switch your dog's food, remember to do it slowly — even if it's the same brand and flavor — to help prevent stomach upset and allow your dog time to adjust.