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Service Dogs Love, Protect and Connect Autistic Kids

Families see big breakthroughs in behavior

Writer: Beth Arky

en Español

From the time Elizabeth Mullen’s son Cooper was a toddler until age 4, if she wanted to hold or cuddle him, as she had with her two older children, she needed to sneak in and catch him while he was sleeping. When he was awake, the small boy screamed if touched, given a bath or exposed to hot or cold. “Touch was the big one for me,” Mullen says. “I wanted to hug him.”

Elizabeth and husband John learned the reason for Cooper’s behaviors at 22 months, when he was diagnosed with autism, sensory processing issues and apraxia, a frustrating speech disorder in which the child knows what he wants to say but his brain has difficulty coordinating the muscle movements to say it.

But then a guinea pig named Coco came into Cooper’s life. The little boy adored older sister Bailey’s pet “like you have never seen a child love an animal,” his mother says. The furry animal would sit in Cooper’s lap and purr when the boy held him against his neck. Coco even played a role in Cooper’s physical and occupational therapy. While Cooper pushed around a stroller weighted with sand bags to improve his upper body strength and provide input aimed at addressing sensory issues, Coco went along for the ride.

Within three months of Coco’s arrival, the Mullens began to notice that Cooper was making small advances. For one thing, he began tolerating different sensations. “We could gently hug him without him screaming,” Mullen says. That wasn’t all. Two-word phrases emerged from the boy who did not speak until he was nearly 2 ½ years old; he even called Coco by name.

Mullen had already been reading up on autism service dogs to safeguard Cooper, who had a tendency to wander, a dangerous—and sometimes fatal—behavior often seen in autistic children and teens. The remarkable changes wrought by one small guinea pig sealed the deal. A year later, golden retriever Kirby became a loved, trusted and highly valued member of the Long Island family.

Service dogs exude calm, guard kids

Service dogs are being used increasingly to help children who have learning, behavioral, or developmental challenges. They are bred for a calm temperament so they don’t react to even the most extreme behaviors such as screaming, impulsivity, and aggression. First used to guide the blind, they can be trained to perform specific tasks to address a particular disability. For example autism service dogs, taught to respond to adult commands, are tethered to their young charges by a belt and leash during outings to prevent wandering. These dogs provide welcome freedom to parents who have had to be ever-watchful, living on high alert.

Even at home and untethered, the dogs offer peace of mind. They’ll lean into or block a child who might run off; if necessary, they are also trained to track a missing child. At home, “if you say, ‘Kirby, where’s Cooper?’ he’ll run and find him,” Mullen says. “If Cooper goes outside unexpectedly, Kirby will bolt out after him, circle him and keep him there till we can catch up.”

Getting a service dog requires a large commitment both in terms of time and money; they can cost $20,000 or more, which includes a year of vet care, training, and room and board. While families are on waiting lists, they often apply for grants and do other fundraising. As Mullen researched nonprofits nationwide, she ran into two more problems: They often don’t place a dog with a child under 5, and they require that families stay at the facility for a couple of weeks to train with the dog. Given that Cooper melts down over major changes in environment and routine, Mullen says it added up to too big a “financial and mental burden.” Then she found North Star Dogs in Connecticut.

Dogs change the social environment

North Star was founded by Patty Dobbs Gross after she saw how much a dog helped her autistic son, Danny. In 1993, when he was 7, Danny received what was then called a “social dog,” a Golden Retriever named Madison, from Canine Companions for Independence. Madison had been raised to work with an adult in a wheelchair but fell out of the program because he was too sensitive to perform the public access piece required. But his calm temperament allowed him to adjust beautifully to a family with four young children, including one on the spectrum, and no shortage of yelling.

“Madison was a wonderful companion for Danny,” Gross says, “but I realized that he could have met Danny’s needs better had he been specifically socialized for working with children on the spectrum. When I decided to found North Star, a top-notch breeding program that focused on temperament was my goal.” Gross has placed about 150 animals so far, about half of whom gone to autistic children; others recipients have included children with serious medical conditions and six veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The behavior of autistic children is very much tied to their environment and emotions at any given moment, Gross says. “When a dog accompanies a child, that child will be in a better environment,” she says. “When people see dogs, they just melt. Eight out of 10 will come over and be very nice. That’s the kind of energy we want, instead of everyone looking away or pulling back. And they’ll ask nice, predictable questions—’Is that your dog? What’s his name?’—allowing for structured conversations. That helps our children develop pragmatic language. It’s a very valuable speech lesson.”

As for Danny, Gross says her son improved little by little, every month, every year; he’s now getting his MFA in film editing and living independently.

By eliminating the need for travel and an extended stay at a training facility, Gross is able to charge $5,000 for a service dog, far less than some other nonprofits’ placements. Puppies bred for temperament and socialization go to a puppy raiser who trains them for their first three months. After that, they live with another family who continues the training near the recipient family, allowing the parents and child to learn how to handle and bond with their matched puppy until she’s ready to come home with them.

Matching the dog to the child

Mullen says that Gross matches dogs carefully to the child. When their initial match didn’t work out—the Lab pup was going to grow too large for Cooper—Gross chose a smaller Golden. If parents are trying to find a dog for their children with allergies, Gross steers them toward standard poodles. While Gross only works with Goldens, Labs and now poodles, other organizations have also place border collies, German shepherds and mixed breeds.

Today, Mullen couldn’t be happier with what Kirby has done for Cooper and the entire family. The dog is a constant companion and source of security for the 5-year-old, who uses him as a pillow and pets him when eating and playing. Cooper never wants to be alone, even when playing video games, so Kirby’s presence gives his mom a much-needed break. While the family is protective of Kirby, the mellow Golden has even allowed Cooper to use him as a step stool. He also guards his boy to the point of trying to climb the slide to be next to him.

Kirby doesn’t get upset if the child yells or stims—a repetitive, self-soothing behavior seen in those on the spectrum. He also picks up on less obvious nonverbal cues. If Cooper is anxious or upset he will go stand next to him, whereas another dog might become frightened and run away.

“Kirby’s smarter than me,” Mullen adds. “He knows the exact behaviors he needs to perform, including getting out of the way and going to the crate, or getting Cooper to rub his head instead of banging his own head against the wall.”

Service dogs are legally recognized under the federal Americans With Disabilities Act as providing a physical task that aides a disabled person, granting them full access to public places including restaurants, stores, mass transit and planes.

Unfortunately, school access is not a given. Although parents say a dog’s calming presence can minimize or prevent their child’s meltdowns and ease transitions, allowing for more learning, there have been rulings both for and against such access. One Texas district ruled an autistic teen’s dog could no longer come to school because newly defined federal guidelines determined it to be only a “comfort animal” and not a full-service animal. The Mullens have decided that they don’t need Kirby to accompany their kindergartener to school—he has an aide to prevent wandering—but they do plan to fly with the dog.

“Cooper hugs, loves and hangs on Kirby and in return Kirby loves and lays on us,” Mullen says. “He’s changed my life, too.”

This article was last reviewed or updated on November 6, 2023.