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HABRI Says Dogs De-Stress Families With Autistic Children, My Family Agrees

The author's daughter, Ava, an ASD kiddo who has a special relationship with dogs

It seems there's really no limit to what our furry, four-legged canine heroes can do. They help countless people navigate though daily life, assisting with everyday chores and stresses, providing comfort and laughs, acting as companions in the workplace, during travel and on our couches. They serve valiantly and uncomplaining during military and law enforcement conflict, and during search and rescue missions. They help to regulate our blood pressure, exercise more regularly, live longer and generally enjoy life more.

And now, dogs can add yet another kind of therapy to their list of skills: parenting intermediary for families with children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

According to the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI) Foundation, results of a long-term study that explored the effects of pet dogs on families with children with ASD showed significantly improved family functioning of those with a dog compared to those without. The study also found a reduction in parent-child dysfunctional interactions among dog-owning families.

Ava and Fritz, one of the Rothrock family's German shepherds

I wholeheartedly agree with these findings, but I've known them to be true since my daughter could walk. Ava, 12 years old, is on the autism spectrum. Our dogs are her angels.

Dealing with “neurotypical” children is challenging enough; throw into the mix serious social awkwardness, compromised conversation skills, sometimes off-the-charts difficulty in managing feelings, and a whole laundry list of other issues, and families' anxiety and stress levels can skyrocket ... and stay there.

Ava is what behaviorists and psychiatrists call “high functioning.” She doesn't “stim” (engage in repetitive movements as coping mechanisms) or have public breakdowns, and she attends a public school that offers part mainstream, part special needs curriculum. But she does have difficulty making friends, fitting in, maintaining multilayered conversation and dealing with emotions. Sometimes she gets a look in her eye that tells us she's in deep space nine. Did I mention she's 12? For my husband and I (and for my younger, “neurotypical” son, Cole), managing her soup of emotions and hormones is a big thing in our household right now. That's where HABRI's study comes into play: It's one of the first to examine how pet dog ownership can lessen the stress of parents in interacting with their autistic child(ren).

“We found a significant, positive relationship between parenting stress of the child’s main caregiver and their attachment to the family dog,” said the principal investigator on the study, professor Daniel Mills, BVSc, Ph.D., from the University of Lincoln in England. “This highlights the importance of the bond between the caregiver and their dog in the benefits they gain.”

HABRI executive director Steven Feldman said: “We have strong scientific evidence to show that pets can have positive effects on these quality-of-life issues. Families with an autistic child should consider pet ownership as a way to improve family harmony.”

Therapy in the Rothrock household by way of GSDs Fritz and Mina

You know what? Thank the universe for our German shepherds, Fritz and Mina. Ava was born into a household with pets and always has had an incredible bond with them. And our dogs have helped our family and our parenting in countless ways, every day.

How exactly do they help? Dogs instinctively know the minute the tension level changes among household members, autistic or not. One or both dogs could be sacked out on the couch, but if I'm trying to talk my daughter down from an escalating emotional situation, their radar goes off and they'll both rather nonchalantly mosey over and gently nudge us both as if to say, “Hey, let's take a break to pet me. Your blood pressure will drop, and your conversation will be more calm and from the heart. It's cool; everyone relax.”

It always works. Like magic. Always.

You know what else is magic? The dogs diffuse situations between Ava and Cole to the point where neither I nor my husband need to step in. They help Ava meet and maintain conversations with other people. Instead of talking about only one thing—her laser focus du jour—she will talk about the dogs and, what's even more important (and parents of autistic children know this to be true) is that she'll ask others questions about their dogs to keep the conversation going. Fritz and Mina know when Ava needs a friend who won't judge, a parent who won't ask questions or just general comfort that requires no words. A sour mood turns around quickly for her when she's getting kisses from a big, hairy beast who seems to know just what she needs and when she needs it. The dogs have helped me countless times as I've tried to teach a lesson about empathy or putting oneself in another's shoes (another big component of autistic characteristics). She relates to and loves those dogs so much that it's sometimes easier for her to understand human interactions through their eyes and when I frame a situation from their point of view.

But what our shepherds can do to de-stress our parenting of a high-functioning child on the spectrum ... I can only imagine what dogs can do for families with children who are on the moderate or severe end of the spectrum. I've seen firsthand in special needs classrooms what a therapy dog can do. Again, it's like magic. Beautiful magic. When a child in the throes of a breakdown is inconsolable by his parents or specially trained adults but is almost immediately calmed by a dog that sits next to him, the tension dissolves, the parents' faces and bodies visibly relax, and the atmosphere of the whole room becomes lighter.

I've always believed that dogs and children need each other and belong together. Since even before Ava was formally diagnosed, I've also firmly believed that children with ASD and dogs belong together, and this study is one of the first of many to prove it. It's my sincere wish that this important information reach the masses so that families with ADS kiddos might take note. Dogs can make such a difference for us humans in so many ways, and I know there are many families out there who could use a good spell of their effortless magic.


Ellyce Rothrock is the editor-in-chief of Pet Product News.

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