For Kids with Autism, Dogs Offer More than Just Puppy Love

When it comes to children with autism disorders, achieving better behavioral outcomes might start with a trip to the pet store.

Owning a dog might offer more benefits than just companionship for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), according to findings from a new study published in Psychoneuroendocrinology, which indicate that specifically trained service dogs can help reduce the anxiety and enhance the socialization skills in this population.

Human interaction with dogs has been shown to result in decreased cortisol levels in healthy adults. In recent years, there has been a great deal of interest in determining whether introducing service dogs to children with ASD can result in positive impacts in terms of social, communicative, and behavioral deficits.

To that end, a team of researchers from Université de Montreal set out to assess the psychological impact of service dogs on the basal salivary cortisol secretion by measuring the salivary cortisol levels of 42 children with ASD in three experimental conditions; prior to and during the introduction of a service dog to their family, and after a short period during which the dog was removed from the family. The investigators compared average cortisol levels and Cortisol Awakening Response (CAR), before and during the introduction of the dog to the family and after it was taken away.

Throughout the trial, parents were asked to complete a questionnaire addressing the behaviors of their children before, during and after the introduction of the dog. On average, parents identified 33 problematic behaviors prior to living with the service dog, compared to 25 while living it.

The introduction of service dogs “translated into a statistically significant diminished CAR,” the researchers found. Prior to introduction of service dogs, they measured a 58% increase in morning cortisol after awakening, which diminished to 10% when service dogs were present. The increase in morning cortisol then jumped back to 48% once the dogs were removed from the families, they found. The service dogs, however, did not have an effect on the children's average diurnal cortisol levels.

"Our findings showed that the dogs had a clear impact on the children's stress hormone levels," said Sonia Lupien, senior researcher and a professor at the Université de Montréal Department of Psychiatry, in an online article. “I have not seen such a dramatic effect before.”

Lupien and colleagues concluded that the CAR of children with ASD is sensitive to the presence of service dogs, which lends support to the potential behavioral benefits of service dogs for children with autism.

For more information:

  • Effect of service dogs on salivary cortisol secretion in autistic children
  • Children's Best Friend: Dogs Help Autistic Children Adapt, Study Shows
  • Why Autism Is Found in More Boys