Autism Service Dogs 101

It’s incredible how autism service dogs can help children with ASD. I speak from firsthand experience because my son has such an animal. Her name is Lucy and she’s fabulous, but more about her later. Service animals for kids with ASD can help curb behaviors, encourage speech, increase independence and more. There are two ways to get such a dog;

1. Acquire the canine from a non-profit foundation that specializes in autism service dogs.
2. Get a dog and train it yourself.

Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages. The main advantage of acquiring a dog through a foundation is that the animal will be extremely well trained and ready to go. On the other hand they are very pricey and there’s often a long wait before getting one (Some foundations help you with fundraising to cover the cost however). And there’s always the chance that you may not get approved to receive a dog.

Our family decided to get a dog and train it ourselves because we believe we’re up to the task. We also couldn’t spend a lot of money and didn’t want to wait any longer than we had to. Let’s start with the basics here.

Lucy, our autism service dog
Lucy, our dedicated
Autism Service Dog
What Is a Service Animal?

According to the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) it is any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability.
ADA, 42 USC Part 12100

That’s all. Notice that it doesn’t say the dog must be certified or licensed or even that it has to go through a training class. Heck, it doesn’t even say your service animal has to be a dog, though you’d be pushing the bounds if you try to go into the local supermarket with a service rooster.

My family chose to train an animal to become one of a growing number of autism service dogs because we can’t afford to pay for one and we don’t want to be put on a waiting list. Often the application process is lengthy, and rightfully so. But we know our son and we were prepared to take this on. We also knew he would enjoy helping us train his dog.
The Right Dog

Getting our own autism service dog started by making a list of criteria we needed to have in the right dog. (See our list on the right.) A big part of training your own animal is to start out with the right dog. You may love Chihuahuas or Great Danes or even Pit Bulls, but your love is not enough to make them into good autism service dogs. A lot of dogs can’t handle the stress of being in a public place surrounded by many people. Some breeds are too aggressive. Some are just too small to be practical. We didn’t care what breed the dog was; We just needed a dog that met our criteria. And the Lord blessed us with Lucy, a 4-year-old Chocolate Lab. She met all our criteria.
The Right Attire

ADA does not specify that autism service dogs, or any kind of service animal, must wear a vest in public. But before we began taking Lucy into stores with us we purchased a service animal vest and waited for it to arrive. Without the vest it would have been awkward and we would have found ourselves explaining and defending our new service animal a lot. So once we got the vest we started taking her out into public places to get her used to it. Of course, before we took her out we also made certain that she would heel and sit and obey us. We knew she was calm and cool and she proved it during her first outing to the mall.

• Up-to-date on shots & heart worm pills
• Good with children
• Good with other pets, including cats
• Calm cool disposition
• Fixed (spayed or neutered)
• Couldn’t be too young or too old
• Housebroken
• Great overall health
• Not an “alpha” dog
• NOT expensive
• Not too big or too small
• Easy to walk on a leash
• Pays attention and is eager to please
• Our son must show an instant connection
Lucy, Our Autism Service Dog

Perhaps you’re wondering, “What tasks does Lucy perform for our son that makes her an autism service dog?” Lucy is still in training as her red vest indicates. But when she is fully trained she will help Braden with his spatial awareness issues, among other things. When Braden is in a public place he doesn’t pay attention to other people. To be specific, in a grocery store he walks right out in front of people who are clearly walking a certain path, such as the crazy lady with the cart doing 25 MPH toward the pork chops. Lucy will help Braden with this issue. She will stop when she sees somebody walking across in front of them. And since Braden will be holding her leash he will be stopped and that will remind him to watch for other people. Lucy will help to keep him safe.
A Word of Caution

It should be noted that ADA does not specify that you can take a dog-in-training into public places in order to help with its training. We did it anyhow and nobody argues with it. How else could you train a service dog and get the animal accustomed to being around many people it’s not familiar with?

Also, if you’re a pet owner, don’t take your pet out in public and pretend it’s a service animal. In California, that’s a misdemeanor and punishable by at least six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Most other states have similar laws.

For more info:
US Dept. of Justice, Commonly Asked Questions Regarding Service Animals: