Can a dog enhance the life of a special needs child?

The answer is a definite “maybe.”

By Karen Peak

One of the hardest things for a parent to hear is that their child is not “perfect.”  That something is not “right.” I have been there, done that, and have multiple t-shirts.  My oldest child, Connor, is autism spectrum. He was diagnosed before entering preschool. Immediately we started with intervention and testing.  By elementary school, we had what we needed in place at home and in school.

Since the 1970s, researchers have known autism is genetic, but the genetics are complex.  At this time autism is still diagnosed through behaviors. This means other things may be mistaken for it. It is thought up to 50% of children with the 22q11.2 deletion syndrome are first diagnosed as autistic. Things causing a child to look like he is ignoring you may be misdiagnosed as autism.  Autism covers a wide spectrum. Autism affects everyone differently.

In 2010, Connor was highlighted on the Shetland Sheepdog episode of Animal Planet’s Dogs 101. A friend of mine put me in contact with the producers who were looking for a human-interest story. Connor was working with our dog Foster in UKC dog shows and agility classes to help improve his coordination, communication and observational skills. The producers decided Connor and Foster were just what they needed. Since then, I have gotten many contacts from parents needing guidance about their autistic children and dogs.

One family’s pediatrician recommended a large dog as an outlet for their child’s behaviors. Luckily the mother sought my opinion as a dog trainer and the parent of a special needs child. I learned her child had frequent, violent outbursts. It was not safe to get a dog at that point.

Another mother wanted to get a dog, but her child needed more work before a dog could be introduced.  My daughter, this child’s therapy team, myself and one of my dogs worked together to help this child learn how to interact in a safer manner with dogs. After about a year, Mom decided they were ready to add a carefully chosen dog to the house. The key words here are “carefully chosen.”

There is no perfect dog for life with any special needs child. If you are considering bringing in a dog to try and enhance the life of your child, I recommend talking to trainers familiar with special needs children and pets. There are many of us in NoVA willing to discuss this topic. Roni Campbell of Walking with a Friend (on Facebook at @walkingwithafriend) and Laura Sharkey of WOOFS! (on Facebook at @woofsdogtraining) are two others you can contact for guidance.  Be honest about what is going on and understand if the answer is “I would not recommend a dog at this time.”

What you see when you watch Connor and Foster on Dogs 101 reruns was the result of many factors. Before becoming a parent, I had 16 years of various dog-related work, including 6 years of pet therapy experience and three years volunteering at a behaviorist’s facility.  One of my first jobs after high school was with cognitively impaired adults of various ages. Connor had an early diagnosis and intervention. And finally what you see is how autism affected Connor as an individual. There are no magic wands, essential oils or mystical powers added to a puppy that will suddenly make everything turn out like a Hallmark Channel movie.  It is work and dedication.

What do I want you to take away from this? In many situations, a dog can enhance the life of a special needs child.  However, in the wrong ones, things could turn out badly. Careful choice of the dog and reasonable expectations for the dog and the child are important.  Early intervention once concerns are raised with your child is a must. Expecting a dog to tolerate anything a child can do is not fair and could result in problems. However, careful work, understanding and reasonable expectations increase the chance of a good outcome.

Catching up with Connor

Today, Connor is a college sophomore studying chemistry and secondary education. He lives on campus, drives, is involved with various clubs, and has volunteered or worked for Prince William County Schools and Kings Dominion.  In tenth grade, as part of the IBMYP program, Connor did a personal project on the topic of autism, pets and technology. The website may be found at:

About the Author: Karen Peak owns West Wind Dog Training and The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project in Prince William County.  She shares her life with her husband of 26 years, her two children, multiple dogs and cats.

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you for presenting a realistic look at dogs for children with special needs. People need to learn about the different kinds of dogs and where they are allowed (service dogs, therapy dogs, and Emotional Support Animals), and realize they are not interchangeable. A loving, well-trained pet is often the best option. I cringe when I read that people want their kids to take their dogs to school, when it really would not be an appropriate, positive experience. I also ache when I read about people wanting to “tether” the dog to an autistic child to prevent running away. As this article says, you really have to figure out what is best for the child, the family, and the animal. There are several scam programs that take parents’ money and give an untrained dog (google before you commit). Do your research! Getting a service dog from Canine Companions for Independence for my daughter with cerebral palsy was the best thing we ever did (she also competed in agility and rally- 8 times at State Fair), but please think long and hard, and find help.

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