Program Uses Dogs to Help Autistic Kids

Dr. Francois Martin sought parents who wanted to place their autistic children in a program of therapy sessions with a counselor and a dog. Martin is a doctor of ethology (someone who specializes in studying behavior) who also studied human psychology. He wanted to see if a close rapport with an animal and a therapist would help the children learn to express their feelings and interact spontaneously with another being – socialization traits that are lacking in children stricken by the devastating neurological disorder.

Noah was four years old in 2000 when Erica Austin decided to enroll him in the novel program at Washington State University's College of Veterinary Medicine. Austin, who teaches communications at Washington State, said she had previously taken Noah to a therapy program that used negative reinforcements, like scolding, to try to change her son's behavior and didn't want to subject him to that again.

This was to be a positive experience, and that sounded promising, she said. “I've read things that would suggest that animals can be a really wonderful tool in teaching all sorts of things, so why not this?'' Austin said.

When the 15-week course of sessions ended, she saw results.

“It was around that time that we saw a spark of creativity in Noah, something we had never seen before,'' she said. “He was making up stories – we had never seen that kind of thing. He seemed to be gentler with our own animals.''

What Is Autism?

Autism is a complex developmental disability that strikes about 1 in every 166 children, four times as many boys as girls. It impairs brain function, particularly in the development of social behavior and communication skills. The children seem to live within their own bubble, oblivious to others or the outside world. They often develop repetitious body movements and extreme sensitivities to sight, smell or taste.

Previous research had shown that just placing an autistic child in a room with a dog didn't produce much interaction. Martin took a different approach. The sessions start with a therapist and child playing with a toy, progresses to a stuffed animal and finally to the pet. The sessions are taped and the child's responses are analyzed by reviewing what's caught on camera.

Once a child is paired with a dog, therapists work to elicit social behavior. For example, they will ask the child, “Would you like to play with the dog? Would you like to pet the dog? Tell me a story about the dog.''

Dog's Personality Is Key

No particular dog breed is favored for the therapy, but personality is everything. “What I want is a dog who is very forgiving, people-oriented, and if a person is behaving strangely, the dog will look at the therapist and say, `That kid is behaving strangely, but it's all right with me,''' said Martin. “Some dogs have a tendency, if they're anxious in a situation, to be aggressive, and I don't want that dog in my research.''

Martin selected 12 children, including Noah, for 10- to 15-minute therapy sessions three times a week. Martin said he and his assistants are now watching the tapes to assess the results.

The review process will take some time, because each tape is scrutinized moment-by-moment to record every instance when a child responds to the therapist or animal. “To code one minute takes about two hours, and we have 10 children,'' he said.

The intense scrutiny is necessary because little hard data has yet been accumulated on such dog therapy programs. According to Martin, “If we want this field of animal-assisted therapy to progress, we have to take this time, and we need this data."

Noah, who had a cat and dog at home, had a less severe form of autism than many other children. Martin said that he believes that more seriously impaired kids who attended the dog-therapy sessions also showed increased interest in their environment and more interactions with the therapist and animals.

“We had a young girl, 12, but developmentally only 2 ½ years old, not talking a lot,'' said Martin. “She did very well – she was sharing; she was smiling. We're not expecting miracles. But this is very significant, because when you're in the learning process, you need to focus.''

The Pet Care Trust of Washington, D.C., a non-profit foundation, paid for the $31,000 project and may do more. The Delta Society, with offices in Renton, Wash., is another non-profit group that helps fund animal therapy with impaired children and adults, including autistic children. But the society has not yet undertaken a scientific study of the benefits, said spokesman David Frei.

Martin said children who've been through the program are invited to come visit their animal helpmates.