It's World Autism Awareness Week and we wanted to know what some of the benefits of dogs are for people on the autistic spectrum. We asked Alis, who helps The Finchley Vet with their marketing and website, to write an article for us:
2 years ago, my life changed, because we got a puppy! Our breed of choice was the Black Russian Terrier, an uncommon giant breed and a ‘Terrier’ only by name! Today, Bear is 2 and a half years old and she weighs 51kg.
I am not an experienced dog owner. In fact, Bear is only my second dog, the first I only have vague memories of because I was so young when we had her. So I write this article from a novice point of view – here are some of the good things about my wonderful dog, as well as how/why dogs can generally be excellent pets for people on the autistic spectrum.
Dogs encourage a good routine
Most people with autism need and like a routine, or find that they function best when there is a routine in place. Your dog will also enjoy a routine. He or she will probably expect for things (meals and walks) to happen at certain times, so it is up to you to fulfil this. Routines are good. It’s a nice and effective habit to get into to walk your dog at a certain time and/or on a particular route, and to feed him or her at certain times.
Dogs give you a way to make friends
Before I got my dog, I didn’t have many friends, nor did I actually know many people in my local area. I didn’t expect dog walking to be so sociable actually (so, be warned, some people with autism will not like the social aspect of owning a dog), but I have made several fantastic friends through my walks. When you have a dog, you meet all sorts of people because you’re not stuck being around only your own age group (like you are when you’re at school or university). It’s been lovely for me to build relationships with people I’d probably never have met otherwise. Like many people with autism, my best friendships are with those who are much older or younger than me/those in different ‘life stages.’ Dog walking has given me a pathway to meet such people!
Dogs encourage you to take exercise
Exercise is one of the greatest things you can do for your body and mind. The government recommends that every person should strive to get at least 10,000 steps per day. If you have a dog, it’s a lot easier to achieve these steps. You can take regular walks throughout the day. Exercise is a good, natural treatment for better mental health.
Dogs help you to become more independent
When you have a dog, you are wholly responsible for him or her. Pets of any species rely on their owners for everything but, arguably, dogs even more so. I have cats as well as my dog, and whereas cats just get on with their own things(!), it is very clear my dog is dependent on me. Autism is a developmental disability which means the skills needed to be ‘independent’ may be lacking. Having a dog will help you improve these skills. For example, you will have to learn how and when to feed them, when to walk them, how to groom them and brush their teeth, how to flea and worm, etc. Not to mention keep them up to date with their vaccinations and visits to the vet.
Dogs help you use basic social skills
Dogs are quite an easy way to practice the most basic of social skills on a regular basis! If you have a dog, probably at least once a day you will have someone come up to you and make small talk. Whenever I take my dog out, I get people coming up to me saying things such as “Wow, lovely dog” to which I respond “thank you”, “Can I stroke her?” to which I respond “yes”, “What breed is she?”, etc. People who have dogs get talked to!
Dogs make you feel more relaxed
I take my dog with me wherever I can and she definitely makes me feel a lot more relaxed in public. It is nice having her to stroke when I feel anxious. She’s also an excuse to look ‘occupied’ so, if I’m feeling uncomfortable in public and struggling to interact or ‘fit in’ with people, I can play and cuddle my dog instead, or even just make an excuse such as let people know that “I’m going to take my dog out for a bit.”
Dogs make you feel less lonely
Dogs are fantastic company. They generally love being in your presence. Unlike cats who generally come to you for affection only when they want it, dogs are always keen! All I have to do is call for Bear and she will come and find me – wherever she is in the house.
Dogs like consistent language and rules
Lots of people with autism thrive on rules and consistency. This is great for dogs and training dogs. When training your dog, you will have to learn to be very consistent in what you say and what you do, what you allow and don’t allow(!) your dog to get away with. Dogs respond best when there are clear rules and simple black/white language – people with autism may be like this anyway! For example, when you feed your dog, you can always make him or her sit by saying the word “Sit”. This becomes a rule – the dog doesn’t get fed if he or she is not sitting.
People with autism work well with rules – so do dogs.
There have been numerous studies confirming the positive impact that animals have on autistic children. A dog can be a fantastic friend for anyone with an autism spectrum disorder - but do make sure you have the time for him or her!
As well as running The Curly Hair Project, a social enterprise for people with autism, Alis helps with the marketing at The Finchley Vet.