I was originally going to broaden this topic to the lack of fairness how I see programs deciding qualifying factors. But I have enough to say about the programs training dogs for children with Autism to make it a standalone post.
First off, let me start on the things I agree with. Dogs can be beneficial to people of all walks of life, autism or otherwise. Dogs do this by just being themselves, they do not judge, they love unconditionally and their antic bring smiles to people’s faces. I am never going to deny the emotional benefit of a dog. I have stumbled across a study done on the effects of dogs on Autistic children and the conclusions are very positive. It also touched on the benefits of pairing children on the spectrum with service dogs, they also recorded positive findings and this is where my opinion starts to disagree with the whole scenario.
Let me take a moment to quickly explain a few key points surrounding service dogs. A service dog is a dog that is trained to mitigate their disabled handler through the use of work or tasks. A service dog is not there to make the job of parenting easier. Tasks or work are trained and proofed behaviours that the dog does to mitigate their handler’s disability. It is not consider a task or work to tie a dog to a child, to comfort a child by just being there or to work as a point to help the child interact with other children or people, these are things the dog can do without training.
Okay, back to the topic at hand. Most if not all the programs I looked at that train dogs for Autistic children when listing the “tasks” or things their dogs are trained to do, they fail to list any legitimate tasks. Instead they opt to talk about how the dog helps the kid to learn to read, or discusses the fact that the kids often become more social with the dog around, which I have already said to be general benefits of having a dog. Or they will list tethering, finding the child, stim and meltdown interruption.
Let me break down my issues with the four “tasks” I listed above.
Tethering: Is the act of tying the dog to the child to prevent them from running off. This is a dangerous practice that I tend to call abusive because of the dangers to both the dog and the child. For one, the child will quickly out grow the dog and could seriously injure the dog when they bolt. Secondly, for any reason another dog goes to attack the dog the child is tethered to and gets in a fight the kid could get seriously injured. I am aware of a case where a dog fight broke out and the kid was hospitalized and nearly died. Either way this is not a task and could just as easily be done by the parent by attaching the tether to the parent rather than the dog.
Finding the Child: I would argue if you are in public and the child really needs the dog than the dog should be with the child, so how would it be useful. But either way I have no real issue with this outside of the fact that it is not a task by any definition I am aware of, in the end it is really to help the parent keep track of their child which could be a mute point if they took other action to insure the child was being adequately supervised, but what do I know. I can see the benefit for this at the home as sometimes a parent simply cannot keep 100% attention on the kid, and I am aware of one child that knew how to unlock the door and escaped on more than one occasion so a search and rescue dog would have been handy. Alternatively having the dog bark when the kid is playing with the locks could also help, but then again not a task.
Stim Interruption: I don’t know about other Autistics, but for me stimming was a way to deal with things that I could not fully comprehend at the time and was a warning so to speak of a coming meltdown. If I was made to stop I went into a meltdown, and if something was done about the source of my distress then I stopped without further difficulties. I know it can be very frustrating for some Autistic children to not be allowed to stim, so I feel unless the child is hurting themselves or somebody else then let them do it as sometimes it is a sign of happy. And if the child is causing harm then it is too dangerous for the dog to get involved.
Meltdown Interruption: I will start this by saying that this task should only be considered only if you are 210% that the child is not violent during a meltdown, even then I would strongly advise the dog instead be trained to give the child space for its own safety. A child in meltdown is not necessarily in control of their body, and very easily could accidentally harm the dog.
Additionally, the main reason to get a service dog is to regain some form of independence weather that be through life saving tasks or other tasks or work. I seriously wonder how much independent a young child really needs, that requires the resources be used to manage a demand that I personally feel requires the assistance of a service dog less than the older population. This in my head would be less of a pet peeve if the organizations actually trained tasks to these dogs, or advertised them as companion animals for Autistic children that do not have public access. I would argue that adults with Autism require these dogs more, as they are trying to contribute to society but their disability is preventing that. Many of us do not have the foggiest notion as to how to train a working dog, and having an organization to help would be hugely beneficial.