De-Stressing with a Puppy for Parents of Children with Autism

A pet dog can reduce stress for parents of a child with autism spectrum disorder, according to a new study.

Cute puppy on a beach
Photo: Mat Hayward/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Research by Hannah Wright et al (University of Lincoln) finds that a family dog reduces stress in the caregivers of a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This result is especially striking because it applies to pet dogs rather than specially trained service dogs. But there are caveats, because a dog is not right for all families.

The study looked at parents of children with ASD, and compared those who chose to get a dog to those who did not. Parents in the group that acquired a dog had significantly lower scores for total stress, parental distress, and for how difficult they thought their child was. 

The change for parental distress was enough that many parents moved from a rating considered clinically high prior to getting a dog, to one that is not clinically high. This is especially important because people with high ratings on this scale typically do not respond well to other available therapies. The parental distress scale includes questions like “I often have the feeling I cannot handle things very well.”

The researchers say there could be several reasons for the improvements in stress levels, including physiological effects of spending time with the dog, social support from the dog, increased activity from taking the dog for walks or spending time away from the child.

There was no difference between the two groups in terms of how dysfunctional the relationship between parent and child is. This is not surprising because you would not necessarily expect a dog to improve interactions between them.

The study compared 38 parents who got a pet dog to 24 parents who did not. All of the families had a child with autism spectrum disorder aged between 2 and 16. Most of the dogs were acquired as puppies, and were a range of breeds and crossbreeds including Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, and Miniature Schnauzers.

Participants completed questionnaires at the baseline, then 3-10 weeks after getting a dog, and again at 25-40 weeks. The control group had a similar timescale for the questionnaire, but without the intervention. It is promising that the results endured to the final follow-up, and further research is needed to see if the effect persists over the lifetime of the dog. 

Many participants were recruited via PAWS workshops run by Dogs for the Disabled. They describe the workshops on their website: “Through practical demonstrations, discussions and hands-on learning, the workshops provide information on choosing the right dog, welfare and care, training techniques, and explores ways a dog can help families with a child with autism.”  Attendance at this workshop hopefully meant that families were well-prepared for the arrival of a puppy.

One caveat to the study is that the dog did not work out for all families, and a number of people dropped out because they got rid of the dog before the end of the study. For those who didn't keep dogs, reasons included issues between the dog and child (including one dog who bit), allergy, and dog training issues. The proportion of people affected (16%) is not that dissimilar from the number of people who give up dogs shortly after acquiring them. (For example, the American Humane Association found that 10% of pets adopted from shelters are no longer in the home six months later). 

There were also some participants who swapped from one group to the other because they changed their minds about either getting or not getting a dog. The study was not a randomized controlled trial, which is the ‘gold standard’ for assessing whether or not interventions work. The researchers say they chose a different design because of ethical issues with randomly assigning a pet dog to families.

Future research is needed to find out whether these results compare to other more-established interventions for the families of children with ASD. It would also be useful to know if there are particular characteristics of the dogs or families that make the relationship more or less likely to work. The results show that – for some families at least – getting a dog significantly improves stress levels. 

If you have a child with ASD, do you think a pet dog is a good idea?

If you liked this post, check out my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog magazine calls it "The must-have guide to improving your dog's life."

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

Wright, H., Hall, S., Hames, A., Hardiman, J., Mills, R., & Mills, D. (2015). Acquiring a Pet Dog Significantly Reduces Stress of Primary Carers for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Prospective Case Control Study Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders DOI: 10.1007/s10803-015-2418-5

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