Many parents struggle whether to get dog for their child who is on the autism spectrum. Should that dog be a family pet (acting as a personal therapy dog) or an actual service dog that can go into public places? Here are some points on both sides of the decision from research, parents and our trainers' experience. Parents/guardians must consider both the child and the dog's needs as the parent is legally responsible for the welfare of any pet cared for by children 16 years and under.

"Benefits (of autism service dogs) were found in 88% of families, and were overwhelmingly social and cognitive, with additional physical and medical benefits for the pediatric client. However, risks, including behavioral, financial, and time/cost issues were significant, becoming a burden in 53% of families." source

In all cases, consult a professional trainer who uses positive methods to help you evaluate a potential dog and help guide you in the training process if you think this might be what you want to do. Better yet, sign up for a web cam session to talk to a service dog trainer who has worked with families with autism and dogs before you start the process! It's the best investment you can make and will save you time, money, effort and heart ache in long run no matter which option you choose!


Pros Cons
Pet Dog  
If your child is high functioning, a puppy could be a good learning and bonding experience. Starting with a puppy is a lot of work. It's like having a baby in the house for upto 2 years. Caring and commitment required. 
Getting an adult dog might be the best choice so you know what you are getting and you skip the puppy and adolescent stage. Both pups and adults can bond to new families. Finding a dog can be a lot of work. Choice of individual dog is critical. Healthy, calm temperament with low to medium exercise needs. Resilient temperament is critical. Larger breeds to consider are labrador retrievers, golden retrievers. Smaller breeds are bichon frises or beagle. All from show (conformation) lines with thicker bone structure. Home-raised litter or dog with kids and parents health-tested. Avoid dogs who show anxiety, or fear. Must appeal to your child. 
  If the parents have not cared for a dog before, there is often welfare issues for the dog. The dog's physical, cognitive, social and emotional needs must be met.
Higher functioning and older children/teens may be able to train their own dog. They learn the skills and knowledge of training they can apply to life. Find a positive trainer who has dealt with autism.  Hiring a good trainer to guide you to a good family pet costs money. Group classes may present a challenge. Private sessions or family tutoring cost more.
An experienced positive trainer can break down the training into bite-sized pieces so you, your child and your dog all succeed.  Poor choice of trainer, such as one who uses punishment, correction or social pressure can teach a child unwanted  habits and social skills. 
Dog may become a social lubricant promoting interaction between your child and other people. Child may feel he's in competition with dog. And parent may feel that way at times too! 
Child focusses on dog and has a topic to discuss with others. May improve your child's communication skills and social awareness. If the child is not bonded the dog, may ignore the dog.
Potential decrease in behaviour problems from your child. Less aggression to self or others. More compliance with parent requests/direction. Potential increase in behaviour problems or different behaviour problems especially in younger, lower functioning children.
Child may smile more often.  
Presence of dog may facilitate motor development as he is motivated to move with the dog.  Smaller dogs are at risk of injury. 
  If child is too physical during meltdowns, a dog may not be an option as it puts the dog's safety at risk.
  Parent may have more conflict management to do.
If child is higher functioning and able to care for dog, dog typically bonds with child. Ideal age to add a dog to a family is 8 years or older, depending on level on autism spectrum. If child is younger or lower functioning, dog typically bonds with primary caregiver (parent).
  Child may show higher level of interest in dog at first, then interest declines.
Child may improve communication at first, then drop back, though to a level higher than before he had the dog. Child may look at dog and talk to dog about his day.  
  More hand flapping another excitement-related behaviours may be seen at first. 
Dog needs a daily schedule (feed, train, exercise, play etc.). This can help to regulate a higher-functioning teen or child's day.  
Improved adaptability of child.  
Child learns about emotions through the dog's point of view. Train can help teach family how to read dog body language.  
There are more benefits if the child has previous or concurrently done horse therapy.   
  Travelling is more challenging with a dog in tow.
  Parent may try to force the situation (make it work) when it isn't. Whether they be lack of bonding, behaviour issues by the child or the dog, time, money or emotional energy, sometimes a dog isn't a good option for each situation.
   
 Service Dog  
Same benefits as pet dog above. Finding the right dog with a resilient temperament can be a challenge as for pet dog. Large dogs cost more to feed.
  Attracts more attention than you want at times. Because you have a dog with you in places where dogs are not allowed, they are interesting. Some people love them, others hate them. 
Dog can perform tasks that help to mitigate autism such as deep pressure therapy to ground the child, interrupting anxiety tasks, interrupting self-harm, retrieving weighted blanket, etc.  
Learning how to train your own tasks can be empowering.  Learning the theory and application of training a service dog to the point of public access is time-consuming and challenging. Needs the ability to commit to the dog while caring for your child.
 You can train new tasks as they are needed. Hiring a trainer and classes can be costly. Plan on $3000-$6000 from puppy to working adult. Add on about $1000 per year to feed, vet and other supplies. More if the dog needs to be professionally groomed.
  Buying a trained dog can be risky. You need to make sure you know what you are getting before you put any money down. Only place a deposit on the dog. Visit the location. See other dogs produced and meet your dog before paying the final deposit. Look for signs of stress from the dogs and find out is aversive equipment has been used on them. Do not accept a dog under 18 months of age as they are not mature enough to do the job (physically, social or emotionally).
  Getting a trained dog from a non-profit program can take 2 years or more, if they are accepting applications and your family qualifies. They may require you to do some fundraising and ideally will do regular follow up maintenance training for the lifetime of the dog.
  Time/focus issues.
Public may be more respectful/understanding of a child with a service dog.  
Parent often feels more competent about managing a child with a dog.  
  Family may be confronted by retailers, schools, restaurants, transportation providers, hotels etc if or not dog can accompany family.  
Service dogs are allowed anywhere a member of the public can go-if they do not cause a disturbance and are house-trained. Service Dogs may not be allowed in private establishments like private homes and schools, private churches, food preparation areas, operating theatres, some sections of zoos etc. They may be asked to be removed if they cause a disturbance (bark or bother other people) or pee or poop.
  There will be places you want to avoid taking your serviced to protect him or her such as fenced off leash dog parks.
  Common welfare issues for the dog are: Lack of recovery time for dog, unintentional maltreatment. Lack of predictable daily schedule for the dog. Not enough recreation time for the dog. These can lead to serious negative impacts on the dog's behaviour, performance, and welfare and parental satisfaction of the dog.
  Dogs behaviour and tasks tend to decline over time if not maintained. You will need to do monthly then bi-yearly refresher training and/or courses to keep your dog up to date.
  Some regions require yearly or every 2-3 year certification renewals for public access. (BC, Alberta and Nova Scotia in Canada for example)