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Best Pet Dog for a Child with Autism - What's Your Advice?

By August 6, 2008

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A reader writes:

My boyfriend's son, Zach, has ADD & Autism. We are looking to get him a dog. I was wondering if you had any idea on what type of dog would be best for a child with Autism? He is 12 years old & could definitely help care for it!
I'm not an expert in this area, but others have had a good deal of experience and can offer advice. Here's what About.com readers have suggested so far:
Sandy says:

golden retrievers are known to be good dogs with kids and my sister’s two have always been good with my son. but my son cant stand furry dogs. we have a mixed breed, Shih Tzu and weiner and this little dog fit the bill for not alot of fur.

Sherri says:

You may want to consider breeds of dogs that have hair vs fur….less people are allergic to this type of animal…there are also breeds with no fur at all.

Those breeds may be more “acceptable” in say a school setting.Unfortunately, it may be more challenging to find people that will train them as therapy dogs,golden retrievers being the dog of choice for trainers. It’s the individual dogs perosnality that seems to be key though.

Cathy Knoll says:

Most of the folks with autism I know have adapted best to “outside” dogs rather than dogs who stay in the house all day and sleep on their beds. The outside dogs are a friend to greet them when they come home from school, to fetch a ball and run around, to go for walks on a leash around the block or in the park, and generally be a buddy.

If Zach hasn’t been around dogs in the past, you might want to visit friends or something to let him see if he likes dogs and to let him learn his preferences. Does he prefer frisky or calm? Can he tolerate barking and tail wagging? Does he have allergies to dogs? Does he want a lap-sitter or a ball-chaser? Does he understand the critical nature of daily care of a pet? If he wants to play with his dog outside, do you have a fenced yard?

Can you advise Brenda? Which pet dogs are the best option for a child with autism?
August 6, 2008 at 3:16 pm
(1) Cathy Knoll says:

Brenda – Your question made me think of the experiences several families of friends with autism had this summer when they got dogs. After jotting down a few thoughts in response to your original question, I decided to write more about the topic since SO many of my friends of all ages with autism and their families ponder the pet issue at one time or another. You can see my discussion of the pros and cons by clicking on the “Pets” discussion at this link:

Best wishes as you folks consider getting a dog for Zach.

August 6, 2008 at 3:44 pm
(2) Kristi says:

I found an amazing place http://www.autismservicedogsofamerica.com
I wanted to be a puppy raiser for her. 503-314-6913

August 6, 2008 at 4:17 pm
(3) Becky says:

My 17yo with Aspergers has a Corgi. She has taken total responsibility for him with a little help from me. He is the perfect dog for her because he has a big dog personality (not yippy and overactive) in a small dog body. Our extended family and friends have noticed that our daughter is more at ease with people since she got the dog six months ago.

They do need exercise but that is good for my daughter because she gets out and walks him at least twice a day. She meets people who are curious about him and loves talking to them about her dog. So it is great for exercise and social skills too. Because of his smaller size, he was easier for her to train.

Just make sure you are ready for the energy level of any dog you get. I highly recommend Cesar Millan’s(the Dog Whisperer) methods of dog training. For brushing, we use a Furminator brush. It really gets out the loose undercoat.

Ours loves to chew so we keep lots of sturdy rawhides around. He loves an ice cube to chase and crunch on too.

A note about Corgis. They are naturally herding dogs and may chase and nip at the heels of a small running child. But ours stops the nipping with a quick command and rarely does it now that he is a year old.

August 6, 2008 at 10:14 pm
(4) Sandy says:

I’d be interested if the reader was looking for a family dog or a therapy dog?

We have a family dog, and it’s a benefit just the same. A dog greets the child when they come home and it’s an RDI dream come true. there’s no denying attention to her over- excitement. they don’t always give so much direct eye contact as they do licking contact, it can help with sensory issues and that lack of flexibilty (you never know when you’ll be licked) plus it helps teach care giving skills to that child with autism.
My son spends sooooo much time greeting his dog, way more than I’d ever hope for myself :) if my kid can only show his dog this, then so be it. the dog is well loved.
We never planned to have a dog either, my aunt made me take her home, it was her last puppy and she wanted to give my special son one of her dogs. A nurse wanted this last puppy and I guess my aunt out right refused and said this kid of mine was getting her. she bred them, but the two parents mixed breeds (oops)it took my son a little time to get used to her, and she had puppy smell and kind of still does and she’s now 3 yrs old. it’s shown my kid to accept her as-is.

pets can be a good thing for kids with autism, and they don’t have to cost to much either. mine was free, but who knew it’d be so worth it, or that my aunt maybe knew a thing or two. It made her so happy to know the two were best buddies, two years after she gave us the dog she passed away.

August 7, 2008 at 7:27 am
(5) Patty Dobbs Gross says:


My name is Patty Dobbs Gross, and I serve as Executive Director of North Star Foundation, an assistance dog organization that breeds, trains and places assistance dogs with children who face social, emotional or educational challenges. We’ve placed nearly 100 dogs with children on the autism spectrum to date around the country.

I’d like to add a few thoughts to your discussion about what kind of dog to select for a child on the autism spectrum…

My first thought would be to be certain the child on the spectrum wants a dog in the first place, and that he or she has the capability to be consistently gentle with a dog; if not, a dog’s presence is bound to cause stress and danger, not relieve it…

Next, observe the child with a variety of dogs to see what kind he or she prefers, but be very careful to first determine that the dog will be safe to interact with the child, that the dog’s owner is standing there behind the child, ready to read the signs of stress in the dog so you can interrupt the interactions if these signs of stress are noted. The same features of autism that can interfere with social interaction with people can exist with dogs (such as not granting the proper body space), and a tolerant and well socialized dog is key to a safe interaction with any child.

Please avoid adopting a rescue pup or dog for a child on the autism spectrum; it is impossible to know a rescue dog’s history and as dogs are associative creatures, a child in the dog’s past may have set him up to have a mistrust of children. We need to make this partnership safe, and it is best to err on the side of caution here and select a pup that is bred for a calm, non reactive temperament. Breeds I like for a child on the spectrum are goldens, labs and standard poodles, but the breeder you select to work with will matter greatly in terms of the quality of the pup’s health and temperament.

When you select your puppy from the litter, avoid the shy pup as well as the overly bold; in general, a middle of the road pup who shows an usual amount of interest and calm patient attention to a child is the way to go…

The first year of this dog’s life is very important in terms of establishing leadership with your pup, gently socializing him or her to your child as well as the rest of your household, and educating the child on how to properly care for and treat the pup. Supervision is key to establishing a healthy relationship with the pup, and in fact, this supervision can be thought of as special education. Allowing the child in on the ground floor of training gives them power in understanding how to best communicate with their pup.

I’ve written a book, THE GOLDEN BRIDGE: A Guide to Assistance Dogs for Children Challenged by Autism or Other Developmental Disabilities, which can be ordered directly from the publisher at http://www.thepress.purdue.edu or from Amazon.com for the best price. I also have a companion DVD entitled “Home Before Dark” about our work with children on the autism spectrum that I can send to anyone who lives or works with a child with autism upon request, as education is an important part of our mission.

Please feel free to visit us at our website at http://www.NorthStarDogs.com and to ask me any questions you might have about our nonprofit work with children…

Kind regards,

Patty Dobbs Gross
Executive Director
North Star Foundation
20 Deerfield Lane
Storrs, CT 06268
“We help children find their way.”

August 7, 2008 at 11:15 am
(6) Stephani says:

My son also has Autism. We rescued a Laborador Retriever for him a couple of years ago and they have been inseperable since the day we brought her home. They sleep together, watch tv together, and play together. After a rough day at school, she’s the first thing he runs to when he arrives home. His meltdowns hae decreased significantly since we got her. The reason that I picked a Lab is because they are big people dogs. They don’t like to be away from their families at all. While they are big dogs, they are still house dogs and easily trained. Sometimes my son can get a little rough and Maxine is big enough not to get hurt if he get’s too rough where I think a little dog might get hurt.

August 7, 2008 at 12:19 pm
(7) Dee says:

Rat terriers are great dogs for autism. Please keep in mind that rat terriers have very different dispositions then jack russell terriers. When someone says that rat terriers are too hyper etc., they often are confusing them with jack russell terriers which are very different. Rat terriers tend to have moments of hyper activity, but they have an “off” switch. This is good for keeping up with my hyper active son, and then for cuddling up with me on the coach:). Anyway, we got a pure bread rat terrier over a year ago, and he has the sweetest disposition. If I would have had the resources, I would have had him trained because he’s very smart. We did get this dog for our son after years of research. Our son is ten and has severe autism. We didn’t experience any miracles, but the dog and my son do have their precious moments, and it is worth it. Sometimes my son does slap the dog, and the dog is smart enough to get away and does not bite or attack back. He also can sense when to go around my son and when to stay away and is not traumatized. Please do not think that my son spends all day hitting the dog because he doesn’t. This has only happened a few times, but it can happen, so it’s important that we have the right kind of dog. We also live in an apartment so the dog is about 25 lbs which makes him a small dog, but big enough not to get hurt. The dog has been good for all of us. I developed PTSD from my son’s autism diagnosis seven years ago, and I just can’t convey how much healing this dog has brought me, as well. He just relieves all of our stress levels so much. I love that dog!

August 7, 2008 at 1:47 pm
(8) steve says:

Before my son was born, we had a 1/2 Chocolate Lab, 1/2 Chesapeak Bay Retriever (pup). Upon my son’s return home from the hospital after being born, the two bonded immediately. He learned to walk, pulling on that dog’s hair, and Augie (the dog), never whimpered or even had a thought of hurting my son. As they both grew, their bond only strengthened. Unfortunately, by 8 years, Augie developed cancer and I had to put him down. My son still misses him greatly, but will never forget him, and it was a great way to introduce him to the realities of life. Now that he is 10, and his grandparents are getting older, he will have a reference for what death means. That dog was one of the best things that I unwittingly provided to my son.

August 7, 2008 at 3:19 pm
(9) Nancy says:

We have two small, 2-year old short-haired pure bred dogs – a Pug and a Boston Terrier.

At first, my son (aged 7) didn’t even acknowledge either of them. It took awhile for him to starting playing with them, but he prefers to play with our Boston Terrier over our Pug (The Pug is actually my “daughter’s dog, she’s 11)”.

The Boston Terrier doesn’t even flinch if my son gets to rough with him or carries him around, he is the much more active fun dog.

August 7, 2008 at 5:50 pm
(10) June E says:

We got a long haired mini daschund for my family, and she has bonded very well with my 12 year old PDD/ADHD son.
I got her because we wanted a very small dog, but with some spunk. Dashchunds bond to the family very well. When I choose her from the litter, I brought my son and I looked for a puppy that was laid back and very social. I would recommend this with any puppy of any breed. She has turned out to be exceedingly easy to train, (except for housebreaking, which is one thing dachshunds are known for)
My son loves her. She sleeps with him, and he takes much of the responsiblity for her care, and walks her and feeds her. He even helps with training her, and has learned out to set boundaries, and other things that are important for boys his age. They bonded very strongly, and I have nothing but raves for this little tiny weiner dog.

August 7, 2008 at 8:34 pm
(11) Moi says:

We have a Bichon Frise, and he is the most wonderful dog, we could not have asked for a better playmate for my son! We got him when my son was 12, he is 16 now. Pooch is very smart, easy to train, non-shedding and non-allergenic. Loves everyone, including the cat. Will do anything for a treat. ;) Keep his coat cut short for easier grooming.

I have had poodles before, and the Bichon is Way better, he is nowhere near as high strung, and a lot more loving.

August 7, 2008 at 11:53 pm
(12) Epi Wonk says:

We have a blonde golden retriever that we got when our son was 9 years old. Our son is now 22 and our dog, Indy, is 13 and still going strong! One of my most touching memories: When our son was 12, he fractured his heel and the fracture got infected, and he was in incredible pain for a few weeks. Indy sat by the side of his bed and licked the tears off his face. (Our son had surgery to fix his heel and everything turned out okay.)

August 8, 2008 at 12:05 am
(13) DIANE says:

I have a son with autism, adhd, etc we had a flat coated black lab, and both of them got along great, when my son was younger and he wanted the dog to come to him, he would reach out and tug on his tail, the dog would turn around and lick him, they were best buds

August 8, 2008 at 11:41 am
(14) Sheryl says:

We have a pug! He is small enough that my five year old son with autism can manage taking him for a walk if he so desires. The only issue we have him is that he tends to run off. So, I am not sure he would be a great “therapy” dog. I would think one with some loyalty would be best! I know beagels are great dogs and easy with children.

August 8, 2008 at 12:49 pm
(15) Patty Dobbs Gross says:


I want to mention how vitally important it is to monitor all interactions between children and the autism spectrum and their dogs, no matter how tolerant the dog appears, until you are certain the pair can be trusted together to interact in a peaceful manner. Any dog may defend itself against painful attack, and this is a risk too great to take with a vulnerable child.

In the eight years of doing North Star’s work, and the previous decade of living with an assistance dog partnered with my own child with autism, I have never seen a child (on the spectrum or not) slap a puppy or dog. The reason is that if a child was at risk of doing this, all their interactions would be closely monitored so that a hand can be grabbed before it has the opportunity to slap (and if that hand does reach its target despite our best efforts, that’s what a North Star pup’s awesomely tolerant temperament comes in handy as a safety net).

This particular moment is important to anticipate and respond correctly to, not just in terms of protecting the dog but also toward our goal of educating the child about the rules that clearly state he or she is not to hit or slap any dog, much less their own. This education about empathy is not to be seen as outside the parameters of what a parent would be working on with their child, but as an adjunct to it.

I love the dogs I breed and place, but also appreciate them as tools to help a child on the autism spectrum achieve their social, emotional and educational goals. Unlike a tool, however, the pups have feelings…they also have the capability of delivering a traumatic bite, and so caution should remain the cornerstone of any relationship between a dog and a child with autism.

Employing a crate can help to achieve this level of supervision, and I myself entwine our pups’ training into the fabric of my day…do you know that with a nice secure fence and a frayed leash I can read a newspaper, drink lukewarm coffee, watch my kids and train my dog all at the same time?

Multitasking at its finest!

Kind regards,

Patty Dobbs Gross
Executive Director
North Star Foundation
20 Deerfield Lane
Storrs, CT 06268
“We help children find their way.”

August 8, 2008 at 4:27 pm
(16) Cathy says:

As a dog lover myself, I really hoped a therapy dog would help my 7 yr old DS with autism. However, he is alternately fascinated and fearful of anything with four feet whose movements he cannot predict. He loves to watch dogs, cats, horses, etc from behind a window, door or fence, but physically shies away from any touching contact. I don’t want to force him to do anything that makes him uncomfortable, but is this a reaction that can be overcome with time and familiarity? He is not fearful of stuffed animals – even the “robotic” kind that sing and dance! Thanks!

August 8, 2008 at 4:56 pm
(17) Patty Dobbs Gross says:

Hi Cathy,

My own son with autism used to be very afraid of mechanical toys when he was young (he was so afraid of Rock ‘em, Sock ‘em Robots that he didn’t step foot in Toys R Us for a solid year). Later, when he was older, I asked him why he was so afraid and he said it was because he wasn’t sure if they were alive or not. I know I told him about the concept of batteries because I have a memory of drawing a picture of them to help him understand this, (and I have a feeling the Disney movie Pinochio also had a hand in educating about what it meant to be a real boy.)

I suppose more lessons about this tricky concept would have evaporated his fear quicker, but time took care of this problem in any case…

Regarding obtaining a dog for your child in hopes of working through this fear of four legged unpredictability, I would go at his pace and stick with therapy and pet friendly visits, behind glass for the time being unless a tiny pup or unthreatening dog can somehow slip past his fears to melt his heart…this will come, and indeed has to come, in your son’s own timetable…

Kind regards,

Patty Dobbs Gross
Executive Director
North Star Foundation
20 Deerfield Lane
Storrs, CT 06268
“We help children find their way.”

August 18, 2008 at 12:28 am
(18) KymYvette says:

Hi! I have been where you are. First, you need to remember that the overall care will be the parents resonsibility until the child is adapted to “total care.” My daughter, now a 21 yo, has finally adapted to a daily routine of caring for her dog, so hopefully you will make the same progress. This what I learned: First who will shae ane be COMMITTED to the animal’s care, including walking and vet care trips? How severe are the child’s symptoms? This will determine the type of dog, especially since its demeanor during meltdowns will affect its behavior, as well. Some children are overwhelmed by large adult dogs, so a puppy maybe the one to “grow” with the children. We have a SHIH TZU, which we searched for for several weeks; it was important NOT TO GET a OVERSTAYED KENNEL TIRED PUPPY, so their demeanor was easy to train; (see news on kennel abuse and puppy prisoners). I did my research without my child to determine the doog’s behaviors with other people children and strangers and loud noises; nervousness and nipping was a no-no! Also, the able to cuddle, walk on a leash, and sit still was a essential. Especially, the ability to reach into dog dish without being nipped! Autstitic children do not understand barriers and social cues, so these factors were important! I did own research on dog types, I had great experience with boxers in childhood, so this was my first experiment, however, I did not choice this type, since they require lage play areas, but are excellent child companions and protectors. My next choice was the large, companion breed dogs, such as labs, golden retrievers, but yard size and food care was a concern, also. The price of gas is expensive, so are large dogs to feed! So, I moved downsized, to the dog appropriate for the actibities of my daughter; rowdy or calm; threatening or serene; cuddly or subdued; but, always ready for an unexpected outburst… After several months, yes, I had not rush, because I knew the dog would find me. I even rough housed with them to see who nipped unexpectedly, so I would know this pet would be a problem. Eventually, I went to the small to medium brreds, and I considered fur care, as well… Hair allergies were the next concern for visitors, since I required child and respite care, most times. I eliminated ALL nervous dogs by nature, especially high anxiety types upon separation, especially during closed door timeouts. So, I moved to smaller companions with calmer demeanors; my first was cocker spaniels, but thye tend to become rambuncous and can nip, which this one did, during minimal playing. My final choice was a little brown fur ball that resembled, “Gizmo,” from the movies, but she was a SHIH TZu. My research indicated that these dogs were breed for personal service to emperors, and tend to comply with their owners wishes, better with defintive training by parents, child and pros. My decision was “Fantazia, a Shih Tzu. She has been with us for 14 years, andsge has earned her weight in gold. She is a great, off leash walking dog, who never ventures from us, even with other dogs; she is my duaghter’s best alert system to pending problems, because she is intiative to her, because she knows when to cuddle and when to leave her alone… But, always at her feet or side. In fact, “Taz,” helped me with the care of my Father who experienced, a dementia delerium due to medication intoxication from Alzheimers Disease. She was the one who brought him back, when the doctors said he was ready to die… She sat and we moved his hand to pat her, and she was shivering, and after two weeks of no words, his first were, “Coat,” and when questioned, again, he said, it, again, “coat,” “dog.” With clarification, we learned he wanted his buddy to get a coat, and he woke up from his delerium. so, in my opinion, “Taz” is the best by far!!! Taz is now 95 years old, and still active as a puppy. I know she has a still knack for comforting small children, she never jumps and sits obediently, and heeds verbal commands, smartly. She talks when she needs something, or when my daughter is into “trouble.” Just like Lassie, “what is it girl, has Stephanie gotten into trouble?” she barks and runs to where my daughter is edging into trouble… This came from simple and consistent training, even with our visitors to prevent bad behaviors from both. So, when you want a dog that loves unconditionally, a Shih Tzu has won our hearts, eternally… Good luck in your search, I hope you find this kind of unconditional love, too! Also, I can contact your local pet therapy services or helper dog trainers for assistance in the appropriate service type of dogs to obtain. I have a childhood background in dog and pet training, so This was alot easier for me… Just remember to take your time… Also,remeber to ask the kennels, breeder’s or store’s policy on returns and diagnostic tests that are indicative for AKC breeded dogs, such as hip dysplasia in SHih Tzu and intestinal parasites. Yes, this occurs in dogs, just like newborn babies…They need postantal testing, too.. Good Luck!

September 11, 2008 at 1:29 pm
(19) Lynette says:

My son Xavier have ADHD and Austim what is the best pet for him .He is 8 years old

October 6, 2008 at 2:35 pm
(20) Jonathan Hughes says:

A dog is good for anyone. It should be one he likes .If you want your kid not to have autium do this, Please go to an upper cervical specific only doctor. http://www.upcspine has a list of practitioners in each state. Everyone needs to be evaluated by one. Don’t wait for symptoms. Your body will be [potentially breaking down in the mean time. The pharmaceutical industry is rich because people wait for the symptoms. When your body breaks down so will your brain.
Whoever you go to should use x rays and use scientific instrumentation to measure improvement over time. Virtually every function of the body is controlled by the nervous system.

Don’t go to a full spine or diversified chiropractor.

April 6, 2009 at 6:42 pm
(21) Anne Rogers says:

My daughter has Aspergers syndrome and her black labrador is a lovely companion and friend. Labs have gentle natures, are fun loving and train well. They dont snap and he doesn’t bark excessively however his tail wags a lot and he has won ‘tail wagging’ competitions at dog show!

July 2, 2009 at 9:54 am
(22) rama says:

well labrador rietrevers are best for children with autisim i know alot about dogs and my sister is autisim so a lbrador is best for autisim

August 6, 2009 at 11:14 am
(23) jessie prescher says:

I work with 3 autistic girl who differ in almost every way from severity to habits. I adopted a male golden retriever from the dumb friends league when he was 1 yr and he is now 1 yr 5 months. We did basic and intermediate training classes through petsmart so that he would learn the basics and so the kids could interact with an obedient dog. They absolutely love him! Echo lays next to one of my girls when he can tell that she is about to have a seizure. I absolutely reccommend retrievers!

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May 28, 2010 at 10:41 pm
(29) R. Asher says:

Try a labradoodle. Very smart and does not shed very much. Good for people who has allergies.

August 25, 2010 at 5:55 pm
(30) emilie crivello says:

my little brother has autism and an ACD (blue heeler) and a doderman .they go everywhere with him

September 5, 2010 at 6:45 pm
(31) Alex says:

my suggestion
as a person with autistic characteristics
to show him pictures of differant dogs
that the hole family can tolerate
and buy him the one he picks
and it can be his own pet
get the dog at a young age
so they will grow up together
and form a close friendship

my family dog was a mother figure to us
e.g. she checked on me every hour.

I also had a cat as my own pet
who had a dogs mentality and he was
my best friend.

August 7, 2011 at 9:59 pm
(32) Hannah says:

Thank you so much this is the comment that helped me the most. My son has Autism Disorder and he is three I am going to show him pictures and see what he does thank you!

January 2, 2011 at 6:21 pm
(33) v says:

Border collies are super intuitive and obedient They strive to understand their owners needs and respond well to proper training They also love working for you and will handle most commands Outdoor dogs who love company and exercise, in my experience. Anyone agree?

March 10, 2011 at 7:46 pm
(34) Mikaela says:

Hi I am 15 years old and I have asbergers sindrom. I rilly want a dog but I don’t know what bread to get. I would rilly like to have a wolf tipe dog. What dog would be right for me?

August 25, 2011 at 1:07 am
(35) Heather says:

We have a 7 year old son with ADHD and a 5 year old daughter with autism. We have a golden retriever and a lab mix. Both are EXCELLENT with the kids no matter what the situation. Neither dog has ever once given any indication of intolerance to the kids. The downside is that both dogs shed terribly and a retriever does require grooming. In addition they are big dogs, both of ours are about 80 lbs each, and they do require plenty of exercise.

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