Autism Service Dogs

Jan 26, 2022
Let’s talk autism service dogs…
 
Autism service dogs can be so helpful! But they tend to be overlooked by autistic adults, especially late diagnosed adults. Sometimes they're overlooked because people don't believe it’s an option which is available for them, since most service dog training programs only train for autistic children. Sometimes they’re overlooked because people don’t think there is anything a service dog could do to help them, and sometimes people don’t even realize autism service dogs exist!
 
Autism service dogs are a great option to help make your life easier and give you more flexibility and freedom. They can truly be the difference between surviving and thriving. There is so much that a service dog can do for you!
 
What do Autism Service Dogs do?
 
There is no one right answer for what an autism dog can do for someone. Service dogs are trained specifically for their handler, and every handlers needs will be different. Every dog will have different tasks they have been trained to do that help out their handler specifically. There are, however, some tasks that are pretty common to see autism service dogs trained to do and whilst this list doesn't cover everything an autism service dog can be trained to do, it does cover the more common tasks.
 
Autism service dogs can be trained to help prevent meltdowns and/or interrupt and minimize the affects of a meltdown or sensory overload. This includes tasks like:
 
  • Alerts: your dog will alert you by nudging you with their nose, pawing at you, or even jumping on you to bring your attention to an oncoming meltdown. Usually this alert is paired to a stim that you do as you are headed towards meltdown, but are not yet having a full blown meltdown
 
  • Deep pressure therapy: your dog will use their body weight to apply pressure to you in a way that helps ground you, reduce stress, and regulate sensory processing. How this looks is dependent on what the handler finds most helpful. Some people prefer to lie down and have their dog cover their entire body and some people prefer to sit and have their dog sit in their lap in a specific way. Some people find both helpful and will train their dog to do it both ways. This is always done by a large dog
 
  • Light pressure therapy: your dog will use their body weight to apply pressure to you in a way that helps ground you, reduce stress, and regulate sensory processing. This can be done by either a large dog or a small dog. This usually is done by your dog resting their head in your lap or on your shoulder
 
  • Excuse to leave: your dog will do something, when asked, that will give you an excuse to leave a situation
 
Autism service dogs can be trained in guide work. Guide tasks are super helpful for when you are disoriented from sensory overload or headed towards a meltdown. Guide tasks include things like:
  • Find an exit: your dog will guide you to an exit so you can leave the environment that is overstimulating
 
  • Find a chair: your dog will guide you to a chair so they can preform deep pressure therapy
 
  • Find a designated person: your dog will guide you to a specified person. Usually this is a friend or family member that you go out in public with often
 
  • Follow a designated person: your dog will follow a specified person. This is very helpful when you need to follow someone in a crowded and/or overstimulating place
 
  • Find your car: your dog will guide you to your car when you do not remember where it is or if you are too disoriented to be able to find it on your own
     
  • Find handler: your dog will guide a specified person (usually a parent) to the autistic person if they elope. This task is more commonly used for children than adults
 
Autism service dogs can be trained to create space for you while you’re out in crowded areas. This include tasks like:
  • Block: your dog will stand behind you to provide a barrier between you and others and prevent them from getting too close
 
  • Cover: your dog will stand in front of you to provide a barrier between you and others and prevent them from getting too close
 
  • Circle: your dog will circle around you to provide a barrier between you and others and prevent them from getting too close. This can be done while you are standing still or while you are in motion
 
Autism service dogs can be trained in hearing assistance. Hearing assistance is helpful for mitigating the negative affects of hyper focus or sensory overload. Hearing tasks include things like:
  • Alert to alarms: your dog will your dog will alert you to the alarm by nudging you with their nose or pawing at you. This prevents you from ignoring or missing an alarm, especially emergency alarms
 
  • Alert to phone: your dog will your dog will alert you to your phone ringing by nudging you with their nose or pawing at you. This prevents you from accidentally ignoring your phone ringing
 
  • Alert to your name: your dog will your dog will alert you to your name being called by nudging you with their nose or pawing at you. This ensures people are able to get your attention even if you are disoriented from sensory overwhelm or stuck in hyper focus
 
Autism service dogs can be trained to retrieve items for you. This includes tasks like:
  • Find lost item: your dog will find and bring specified items to you on command. This includes items like keys, phone, wallet, etc
 
  • Retrieve dropped item: Your dog will retrieve items you drop. This is especially helpful if you tend to drop items and not notice that you dropped them. This includes items like keys, phone, wallet, etc
 
Again, this is just a list of the more commonly trained tasks for autism service dogs. Not all autism service dogs will do every single task listed here and some will do tasks that haven’t been listed. Another huge benefit of having an autism service dog is the emotional support and social support they provide simply by existing. Neither of these things count as a trained task, but they can be just as helpful.
 
Cons to Having a Service Dog
 
Getting a service dog is a big step. It’s not something you do on a whim and having a service dog is not all good. There are some pretty big cons to having a service dog that need to be considered before getting one.
 
After seeing everything an autism service dog can do to help, your probably wondering what could be bad about having a dog that can do all that for you?
 
It’s a huge time commitment and not something that happened over night. Service dogs take one and a half to two years on average to be fully trained. The more tasks you need trained, the longer training will take. If you’re training your dog yourself, you can expect it to take even longer if this is your first time training a dog because you will be learning how to train everything as you train your dog. If you decided to get a trained dog from a program you can expect to be put on a waitlist. The waitlists can be anywhere from one to six years long.
 
Service dogs are EXPENSIVE. If you decided to get a trained dog from a program they can be anywhere from $10,000 to $60,000 (in the United States). There are some programs that will give away their dogs for free, but they almost never provide autism service dogs for adults. If you decide to train your own dog you can still expect to pay upwards of $5000 for training. Because there is so much that has to go into training your service dog you’ll want to enlist the help of a professional for some, if not all, of the training and those costs add up quick.
 
Having a service dog can be like walking around town with a neon flashing sign saying “I’m disabled”. Every single time I go somewhere with my dog I get stares, I hear people pointing out my dog to the people they are with, and I have at least one (usually more) person speak to me directly about my service dog. Service dogs can draw a ton of extra attention to you when you are out in public and for some people, that’s a deal breaker.
 
You also run the risk of being denied access to places from people who don’t know the laws. It’s not super common… I’ve had a service dog with me for the past five years, either a dog I was training for someone else or my own service dog, and I’ve only been completely denied access maybe three or four times in those five years. It is a bit more common to have some pushback and to have to explain what a service dog is and that, yes, my service dog is allowed to come with me even tho there is a no dogs policy. That happens every few months, more if I’m going to new places more frequently. But this can also be a dealbreaker, having to argue for your rights can be super stressful in what it potentially an already stressful situation anyway.
 
Sensory issues can also be a problem. Dogs are noisy, they whine and bark. They drool and can slobber all over you. They can be smelly, especially when they get wet or if they are overdue for a bath. Their fur texture can be an issue depending on what length of fur they have. They get in your personal space all the time and can be pretty overwhelming. For some people these things are annoying but tolerable, but for others this can be a deal breaker.
 
Is an Autism Service Dog Right for You?
 
Having a service dog can give you more independence than you would otherwise have. For some autistic people having a service dog can mean the difference between being able to live alone or not, being able to go to college or not, being able to hold down a job or not.
 
If you’re familiar with spoon theory, having a service dog can give you more spoons. They make things less stressful. They can make living your life takes less out of you. You’ll have more independence and a greater ability to go places on your own or try new things that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to do.
 
But you have to be the one to decide if the pros outweigh the cons. Do the benefits outweigh the negatives. Depending on your countries laws, you may also need to consult with your doctor or psychiatrist, some places require a prescription in order for your service dog to be legal.
If you’re late diagnosed it’s so easy to think you wouldn’t benefit from having a service dog. You’ve made it this long without one, right? Sure, but you also made it this long without a diagnosis and (usually) without accommodating for your needs too so… If you found yourself excited about some of the tasks listed above, it’s definitely worth your while to at least look into getting a service dog.
 
At the end of the day, it’s a very personal decision and there is no right answer. The right answer is whatever make the most sense for you and your life.
 
But as someone who has an autism service dog… I think training my dog to be my service dog was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made for myself.
 
Bio:
 
Hey I’m Tara! I’m a professional dog trainer that helps people owner train their own autism service dogs.
 
I’ve been a professional trainer for 5 years now and I’ve worked with all sorts of dogs from police K9’s, to puppies, to aggressive dogs, to fearful dogs, and now service dogs. One of my special interests is definitely dog training
 
I’m also autistic and have my own autism service dog! I also have 2 other dogs, 2 ferrets, and there is almost always at least 1 foster dog in my house.