Service dogs for kids with developmental disabilities

A CHILD WHO IS DIAGNOSED WITH A DEVELOPMENTAL DISABILITY like autism can sometimes be helped by the mere presence of the right dog. If your child is dealing with anxiety, depression, ADHD, GI problems, sleep disturbance, or other challenges – a calm, loving, well-trained service dog might not only help your child’s quality of life but bring you some peace of mind. Here are a some examples of tasks a service dog can be taught that might help people with development delays. But, remember, each dog is specifically trained to mitigate the individual issues that a specific person experiences. There is no way this can be generic training.
  • TRANSITIONS. Whether it’s time to go from bedroom to breakfast to school or from playing games on his tablet to leaving for a doctor’s appointment – just switching gears can be a challenge. The right dog can make these kinds of transitions smoother.

  • SOCIALIZATION. A service dog can provide your child with a best friend – one who can become a social bridge, allowing for interaction with kids who might otherwise be standoffish. After all, there’s no better icebreaker than being the kid with the cool dog.

  • MELTDOWN CESSATION/DEEP PRESSURE. A service dog can be taught to interrupt your child’s meltdowns. Sometimes that’s as simple as the dog moving close to your child, nudging him with his nose or providing deep pressure to calm him. Dogs are patient and a dog that grows up with his child “gets” those meltdowns. There are times when your service dog will put his head in your child’s lap (because he’s been trained do so) and simply wait for the child to pet or hug him.

  • FIND. Just in case your child should wander off, the service dog can be trained to find him or her, following the child’s scent. This is the same kind of training used with search and rescue dogs.

  • BONDING TO PREVENT BOLTING. Never attach a child to a service dog. It’s dangerous. Depending on the child’s age and ability, he may be able to handle the dog in public. But often the parent works the dog while the child becomes the third member of the team – holding a short leash attached to a second collar. The picture below shows Patrick with the short red leash in his hand while his mom handles the dog. For kids who love being with their dog, this is often enough to keep them from bolting.


And then there are the ways a service dog can help family members and caregivers. The right dog will make your life easier. You’ll have a second set of eyes and ears to help you keep track of your child. If you suddenly realize you don’t know where in the house he’s gone, your service dog can be trained to find him, return to you, and take you to him. A service dog can save you steps by learning to retrieve things around the house like your cell phone and keys.

Before you do anything else, does your child like dogs? If he doesn’t, the bond that makes this work may never happen. And a dog who’s not bonded with his child will not work as well as one who is bonded.

Follow the story of Levi, the autism service dog in training, here. Want to know what it’s like to train your own or a loved ones service dog? Follow Allison’s posts about training Peabody.

Questions? Visit me at or email me at


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