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Dogs May Help Behaviour Of Autistic Children, Finds Study

October 21, 2010

The use of specially trained dogs has become commonplace to help blind and deaf people live independently and can also help disabled people with tasks such as getting money from a cash machine and emptying a washing machine.

Now researchers are exploring how dogs may help children with autism as ancedotal evidence over a number of years has suggested they are beneficial.

Autism is a spectrum disorder with problems ranging from relatively mild impairment of relationships and ‘reading’ others, to profound anxiety, limited speech and isolation.

A study conducted in Canada measured stress hormones in saliva and questioned parents about their child’s behaviour before the introduction of a dog into the home, while they had the dog and after the dog was removed.

At the end of the study all the families had the option of keeping the dog which was provided and trained by the MIRA Foundation, in Quebec, which specialises in dogs for the blind, deaf and physically disabled.

Autistic children in 42 families were involved in the study and it was found that stress levels were lower after the introduction of the dog and parents reported fewer problem behaviours such as tantrums, anxiety and better tolerance of household noises like appliances.

On average, parents counted 33 problematic behaviours prior to living with the dog, and only 25 while living with the animal.

The findings were published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

Sonia Lupien, senior researcher and a professor at the Université de Montréal Department of Psychiatry and Director of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress at Louis-H. Lafontaine Hospital said: “Our findings showed that the dogs had a clear impact on the children’s stress hormone levels.

“I have have not seen such a dramatic effect before.

“Introducing service dogs to children with Autism Syndrome Disorders has received growing attention in recent decades.

“Until now, no study has measured the physiological impact. Our results lend support to the potential behavioural benefits of service dogs for autistic children.”

The dogs had their behaviour assessed and were trained for three months to remain calm even when their environment became chaotic.

Mark Lever, chief executive of the National Autistic Society, said: “The results of this small scale study are encouraging and it is particularly interesting that it focuses on the physiological changes in the stress levels of children with autism.

“Whilst we know that some children with autism can be scared of dogs, we regularly hear from other families who report that their children respond well to the company of dogs or develop some sort of special connection, and we are keen understand this further.

“Pilot programmes with autism assistance dogs are at a early stage in the UK and there are presently very few trained dogs available, however the NAS is keen to see these projects extended.

“We are also interested to learn more about the potential benefits of owning a pet dog. As a result, we are embarking on a research project which aims to assess the impact a pet dog can have on a child’s life.

“For this, we are currently looking for families to take part in this project, and people will be able to follow the progress of the research through our website.”

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