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Myth #3: The Biggest Danger from an Autism Assistance Dog is the Hit to the Pocketbook

by Patty Dobbs Gross

'Danny & Madison''Danny & Madison'

Of the top five myths about autism assistance dogs that I will cover in this column, this myth is by far the most dangerous. If you partially believe in this emerging field, at least enough to attempt to create an autism assistance dog partnership with a child on the spectrum, but not buy deeply enough into the concept to select a responsible autism assistance dog organization to work with or an intelligent philosophy of placement to shape your potential assistance puppy in training, you can inadvertently cause a very dangerous situation to develop for the very child you hoped to help.

By virtue of my work at North Star, I hear from parents frequently who are skirting danger: an anxious mother will call me to say she just can’t get her rescue dog to stop growling at her autistic child; what can I do to help her to get the dog to stop this behavior? A father tells me proudly that his german shepherd puppy is delivering “sensory feedback” by biting the length of his severely autistic daughter’s arm, up and down, up and down; he wonders, do I approve of this technique?

I advise the mother to remove the dog post haste from her home, and replace it with a more carefully selected and socialized pup, pulling a positive trainer on board to help with the nuts and bolts of the pup’s training and socialization program from the first day the pup arrives on the home front. I tell that father to supervise this puppy with this child carefully and to forbid this mouthing behavior, interrupting it every single time by a trip to the crate with a bone, as well as advise him to consult an occupational therapist for sensory feedback techniques to use with his daughter, perhaps factoring in his autism assistance pup in training into this therapy, but only if appropriate to do so.

Most children are put at risk with substandard placements or inappropriate or ill trained and socialized dogs due to ignorance, not cruelty, but the rescue dog who may not be able to express the increasing difficulty coping with the child’s behaviors may still ultimately bite that child if nothing is done to change the situation. Safe and effective autism assistance dog placements take money, time, and energy to create, and most families of children with autism are already strapped in these departments due to their children’s significant special needs. It’s seldom greed that makes these parents desire to cut any corners they can to try to obtain an autism assistance dog for their child; it’s a pragmatic thing, a case of necessity being the mother of invention, and so a pup from the pound is chosen, a substandard (or nonexistent) training program is selected and the chips fall where they may, regardless of the danger to the child served.

And there is danger here; according to the American Humane Society:

  • 50% of dog attacks in the US each year involved children under 12 years old
  • 70% of dog-bite fatalities occurred among children under 10 years old
  • Bite rates are dramatically higher among children who are 5 to 9 years old

This last bullet is especially worrisome, as this is the age that most children on the autism spectrum receive their autism assistance dog; there is a very real possibility that children on the autism spectrum are actually at a heightened risk for a bite as these children may well poke a finger into a dog’s mouth, lean their sudden weight onto their dogs’ back or a deliver a shrill shrieks just inches from their dog’s sensitive ear.

To avoid the potential danger of a dog bite delivered to a child with autism, we need to prepare our potential assistance dogs for that delicate finger that might slip in their mouths so they won’t clamp down, or for the feel of the weight of a child draping over them, or the sound of a child’s fury (which should signify nothing save a treat or kind word to our potential autism assistance dog.) Correct socialization of assistance dogs along with prudent supervision of autism assistance dog placements from the start will greatly decrease the possibility of a dog bite to a child.

We have gone over a decade with no claim taken out on our insurance policy for any injuries caused by North Star dogs to our children served, and believe me when I tell you it is by design that this is so; quality control is job number one around these parts! Granted, the danger faced by the pocketbook feels alarming when presented with the amount of money that might need to be fundraised to accomplish a safe and effective autism assistance dog placement, but even more alarming is anyone attempting to do this work motivated by profit or lacking the true understanding of both the commitment as well as expense this field requires to be safe as well as effective.

North Star has managed to keep our level of donation to $5,000 for our families for the first ten years of our incorporation, although our true cost of each placement is closer to twice this much; we save money by employing lots of dedicated and talented volunteers as well as by having a core group of supporters we’ve attracted over the years since we’ve been incorporated. We’ve also found smart ways to meet our bottom line without sacrificing quality (ie, develop a stellar breeding program, which we had begun even before we were incorporated a decade ago; this is paying off for us handsomely as the years pass!), but if anyone else professes to create a placement for this low sum of $5,000, you should ask how they obtain the rest of their funding, for although $5,000 is a sizable amount of money, there just isn’t any way this is enough funding to create a safe and effective autism assistance dog placement. I would say the average true cost of a quality autism assistance dog placement is $11,000 to $14,000; with this price tag even higher for CCI or Guiding Eye dogs (although these placements may be better funded due to the nature of these larger parent organizations, but they would probably have a longer waiting list).

A word of caution to any family about to embark on a search for an autism assistance dog placement for a child: there is currently not enough federal regulation of this field, so it is ripe for con artists and those who wish to make a quick and fast buck off the hopes and dreams of a child. In most of these cases the men and women involved preyed on ignorance of what a quality autism assistance dog placement consists of, but in some cases they are ignorant themselves about the subject of autism assistance dogs: in Alabama I spoke to a quality breeder of show goldens who was sincerely charging families over $20,000 for her “autism assistance” dogs, with this money forked over for the dog with virtually no screening program or follow up training and/or services. This woman just felt her dogs were worth this amount because they were prized in the ring.

This is a gross misunderstanding of the relative importance of both breeding as well as training for autism assistance dogs; yes, breeding is important, but just because a dog ‘s pedigree may reflect soundness and beauty, this does not guarantee it will produce offspring with canine temperaments that meet our needs with children on the autism spectrum. In fact, in terms of temperament, show dogs are prized for more assertion in the ring than the mellow and fairly submissive temperament I try to partner with children on the spectrum, and the show person’s breeding goals tend to concern such physical traits such as certain shape of head or length of ears. This can cause them to select breeding stock with opposite temperamental traits than what is needed for the role of autism assistance dog.

Although this Alabama breeder may have even temperament tested the pups she placed, and even if the dogs she selects to partner with an autistic child are quite beautiful, obedient, and well trained, this breeder paid no attention whatsoever to socializing these kenneled dogs to children, much less children on the spectrum, and she did not offer any sort of screening for the families beforehand nor follow up services afterward; she was misunderstanding the autism assistance dog field to be all about breeding and training, two big components of any successful autism assistance dog placement, but her approach lacked the necessary screening, supervising and education required to be successful, and this may well cause the autism assistance dog placement to fail, leaving a bereft child in the placement’s wake, or an injured one if luck isn’t on our side.

I’ve also seen substandard and uncertified “trainers” take thousands of dollars from families, later delivering half grown aggressive and fearful dogs who displayed resource guarding as well as fear biting, both activities we both want kept out of any child’s home; I’ve heard these families were further advised to ignore the dog’s growling (always terrible advice). These situations are bites waiting to happen, and it makes me wonder: haven’t we all watched enough 20/20 in our lifetime to begin to think in terms of prevention rather than sensationalized after-the-fact punishment?

Better regulation of this emerging field will be a welcome step in creating safer autism assistance dog placements for children far into the future. Better funding is also needed, as this is what allows the quality services to be created and expanded upon in the first place. Profit needs to be kept at bay and costs should be covered by those who live in the child’s community, which should also offer the volunteer help so crucial to this field. Federal or state support would be very welcome to allow quality programs to increase their services, including offers of education for fledging organizations that want to learn how to fly right (creating lots of good jobs in the process!)

Children with autism deserve our support as well as our respect, and just as with all of our children, we should first do them no harm, even and especially under the guise of helping them.

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” ~Franklin D. Roosevelt

Information concerning how to find a quality autism assistance dog organization to work with is available on North Star’s website at www.NorthStarDogs.com, as education is an important part of our mission.

  1. Asperger syndrome
  2. Autism
  3. Funding sources
  4. Service animals
  5. therapeutics
  6. Therapeutic use

Comments on this entry

  1. Pamela S. Hogle

    This is a wonderful series of posts. I am eager to see more. I cringe every time I see a newspaper story about a service dog placed with a child. My current “favorite” is about a 6-year-old boy with autism who, in an article that is less than 300 words long, is described as not liking dogs, fearing dogs, and not liking animals. His biggest issue is running away. And he just got an $11,000 service dog, who will keep tabs on him. So much more public education is needed. I hope your essays reach a wide audience.

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    Replying to Pamela S. Hogle

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