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Carlisle, Gretchen K. Pet Dog Ownership Decisions for Parents of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Pediatric Nursing. 2014;29(2):114-123.
This article presented a study about how owning dogs might have a unique role in the development of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Researchers apply the attachment theory to describe the relationship children have to their pets. For typically developing children, pets are part of the family, support systems and friends. Little is known about the relationship between children diagnosed with ASD and their pets. There has been an increase in the use of animal-assisted therapy and service dogs. Children with ASD show difficulty establishing social relationships. Studies suggest the possibility of social benefits from the relationship with specially trained dogs. The difficulty children with ASD have established social relationships has been related to the inability to understand people’s thoughts. The lack of facial gestures and body language in dogs may facilitate the interaction for children with ASD. It has been shown that Cortisol levels increase when children interact with peers but decrease when they are paired with service dogs. This decrease in cortisol levels may influence the development of a relationship with the service dogs. Conducted studies found that there is a moderate improvement in the behavior of children with ASD when paired with dogs. Some studies that compare the presence of stuffed animals with live dogs, had shown that the presence of live dogs increase the amount of conversation and focused eye gazing. Others study showed that the presence of a dog during occupational therapy has increased the social interactions compared to sessions where dogs were not present. Researchers have found that the presence of service dogs at home has shown to decrease behavioral problems that affect social interactions, decrease anxiety, and increase social reciprocity and overall happiness.
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One study about children with ASD and pet ownership has been conducted. This study compared children who have had pets their entire lives, children who had never lived with a pet, and children that acquired a pet after age five. This study found that 50% of the children that have had dogs their entire lives have tactile interactions with the pet. Two described having a privileged relationship with the pet, but none of the children played or cared for the animals. On the other hand, 75% of the children that acquired pets after age five had tactile interaction with the pet. 50% played with their dogs, 58% cared for them and 58% described to have a privileged relationship with it. Six of the families involved in this study got pets specifically for the child with ASD.
In this study, the sample of children had to meet the following criteria: being in between the ages of 8-18, have an IQ of 70 or greater, and being diagnosed with one of the autism spectrums disorders. The data for this study included 70 parents of children with ASD. Three of these were excluded for having highly unique circumstances that affected children’s exposure with the dogs. Some of these situations included the recent death of the dog, having an aggressive dog in a kennel, and not being an owner, but dog-sitting for friends. The data for these children was not consistent, therefore it was excluded. The purpose of this study was to identify the decision-making process regarding owning a dog in families that have children with ASD. Also, to describe the interaction of children with ASD who lived with dogs, and children that do not live with dogs, but have encounters with them in the community. This study was conducted via telephone. The researchers asked questions to the parents about their children’s interactions and would be compensated with a $10 gift card for their time. Forty-seven percent of the families owned dogs and eighty-one percent owned some type of pet. All the participants, including the ones that did not have pets, but encountered them in the community, reported the interaction of their children with dogs.
The first research question that was asked was: “How do families of children with ASD make decisions regarding dog ownership?”. Three parents explained that their primary reason to get a dog was for companionship. For other families the decision to acquire a dog was related to the diagnosis of their children. The most commonly reported reason against acquiring a dog was the work of caring for the animal. Other families explained that they could not get dogs since their children were afraid of them but were comfortable around other pets.
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The second research question asked in this study was: “How do children with ASD interact with pet dogs?”. All, but three of the participants, reported that their children’s interactions with the dogs were through some type of play. Many children were reported to interact with their dogs through quiet activities like sitting with them while playing video games and watching tv. These children were reported to be more attached to the dogs. For some children, sensory issues that the children could not tolerate were described as a common problem. These problems included licking, touching, and barking. Four participants of this study presented safety issues against the dogs, meaning they would be aggressive towards them, which required monitoring to ensure the safety of the dog. Children that did not own a dog were reported to have some type of interaction with them in the community. These children exhibited negative responses based on the behavior of the dogs and sensory issues.
The third research question was: “What are the benefits/burdens of dog ownership for families of children with autism?”. Forty-seven percent of the parents reported companionship for their children as a benefit of having a dog. One parent described it helped with stress and forty-five percent said the dogs were companions to them. In non-dog owning families, all but two parents said it would be beneficial for their kids to own a dog. Cost and time to care for the dog was the main reason reported as a burden. Parents that did not own a dog reported that some kids were afraid of the dogs, but that were comfortable with other pets. Other reason was that their housing situation did not allow them.
It is common for families with children diagnosed with ASD to own dogs. Many parents believe their children can develop an attachment to their dogs. The decision of acquitting a dog depends on many factors. These factors include making sure the dog received care and getting a dog that matches the personality of the child. It is important to consider the child’s sensory issues. There are also alternative pets that could provide the benefits without the sensory overload. Some children may not benefit from owning a pet at all.
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