Source: Indys Child Parenting Magazine

Fido as Therapist
The connection between dogs and children with autism

by Carrie Bishop

January 01, 2013

Dogs can teach kids a trick or two - as Mindi McMillan of Zionsville would attest. This mother of six describes her son as a walking miracle and believes therapy dogs played no small role in helping him achieve the abilities he has today.

Her son has autism, mild cerebral palsy and sensory integration disorder. Yet, despite these obstacles he recently made his school’s eighth grade basketball team. He’s put in a great deal of work to achieve this feat and met with many therapists. The most memorable therapist, however, was the one who walked with four legs and had a wet nose. Bretta was a therapy dog at Peyton Manning Children's Hospital at St. Vincent who served as motivator and teacher for the boy.

Like other children with autism, McMillan says her son could not handle smells, sights, sounds or touch. The bath bothered him. Brushing his teeth bothered him. He had an aversion to clothing associated with the changing of seasons. Bretta helped him. He would brush the dog’s teeth and then his own. He would brush Bretta the way his mother had to brush his body to help desensitize him to touch.

“I remember so clearly the first day he brushed his teeth on his own without any incident. He felt such a sense of accomplishment,” McMillan recalls.

She saw her son respond to Bretta more than other forms of therapy, so she looked into getting him his own therapy dog. The family wound up importing a female Australian Multi-gen Labradoodle, bred her and ultimately established what is now called Colonial Village Labradoodles breeding program. McMillan notes that not all dogs make good therapy dog candidates, but between 10 and 20 percent of her dogs do go into some sort of special needs family situation whether it be for a child with autism or a teen struggling with drug addiction.

McMillan’s experience is no anomaly, which is why Peyton Manning Children's Hospital at St. Vincent continues its commitment to pet therapy. In fact, the hospital currently has two therapy dogs trained by the national organization Canine Companions for Independence (CCI). The dogs serve as motivators, assistors, comforters, distractors and beings with which to bond or identify.

Sharon Worden, Manager of Pediatric Therapy Services at the hospital, believes dogs as well as horses are particularly helpful to kids with autism because the animals are nonjudgmental, yet have feelings that can be described and discussed. Kids can also relate to them and make eye contact with them. She says animals are concrete by nature and respond well to structure, which is similar to kids with autism. Animals can even provide a calming influence that allows for better learning and attention to tasks in therapy.

“Each child is different and reacts differently to animals. What we have seen in our clinics with our animals has been very successful and motivating for the children - but they do present a change in routine, responsibilities and some unknowns, all of which can be a challenge to the autistic child,” said Worden.

The case for pet therapy may be strong, but Worden’s point is valid. Animals are not ideal for every child and if a family is considering adopting a therapy pet as McMillan did for her son, they need to do their research.

Warren Patitz, owner of Doggone Connection in Zionsville, says parents should learn as much as they can about the care, behavior and management of the animal so people and pet have a mutually beneficial experience. He also believes it’s smart to speak with other families with kids on the autism spectrum that have had dogs to learn about their experience.

Executive Director of the Autism Society of Indiana Dana Renay is one such mom who recently purchased a puppy for her son with autism. She says her son, who is nine, gets frustrated with the pet because he doesn’t understand that she is a puppy and doesn’t follow rules. “She also gets into his stuff, which drives him crazy; however, he loves her and we’ve begun to train her to work with him,” she said. Overall, Renay is happy with the four-legged friend but admits a puppy is a lot of work in addition to raising a child with autism and his siblings.

As with all things autism, pet therapy or simple canine companionship works for some kids on the spectrum but not all kids. Judging from McMillan’s experience, however, exploring the benefits of these furry companions is worth serious consideration.