Owning a pet dog can help families of children with autism

A new study has highlighted the potential for pet dogs to reduce stress in parents of children with autism.

A team of psychologists and animal behaviour experts at the University of Lincoln, UK, in conjunction with charities Dogs for the Disabled and the National Autistic Society, discovered a significant decrease in parental stress in those families who acquired a dog.

With support from the Big Lottery Fund, the researchers have been investigating the benefits a pet dog can bring to families with a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

The importance of trained assistance dogs for disabled people and autism assistance dogs, in improving the quality of life of a range of individuals with specific requirements, is well recognised. However, training these dogs requires substantial time and economical input.

In recognition of this problem charity Dogs for the Disabled developed a series of workshops and aftercare support services known as PAWS to demonstrate to parents and carers of children with autism the benefits that pet dogs may bring to their family.

Professor Daniel Mills presented the research findings, which have been published online in the Journal of Autism and Development Disorders, at The Research Autism Lorna Wing Conference, My Family and Autism, in London on Thursday, 21st May.

Professor Daniel Mills, from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln, said: “These families are often living under great stress, which can bring detrimental impacts to mental and physical health. This study focussed on the potential of pet dogs to alter parenting stress levels. Previous research has suggested that animal-assisted therapy (AAT) can reduce blood pressure and anxiety in a number of individuals. However, AAT typically involves short, structured sessions with a dog, without the additional burden of daily animal care. Given the added responsibility that comes with owning a dog, particularly a puppy, we wanted to assess whether parents living in stressful circumstances could still benefit from animal companionship, despite the increase in responsibilities and duties.”

The researchers used a standardised assessment of parental stress, to measure parents’ stress levels before obtaining a dog and at designated periods after that. At the same time periods, and using the same scale, the team measured parenting stress in a control group of parents with a child with autism, who did not acquire a pet dog during this time.

Significant decreases in parenting stress were observed in the families who acquired a dog and a significant number of these parents moved from clinically high levels of parental distress to within the clinically normal range.

Professor Mills added: “The results highlight the potential of pet dogs to improve parenting stress associated with caring for a child with autism. As well as improving quality of life for these parents, reductions in parenting stress could also improve problematic child behaviours, with research from other teams suggesting that levels of parental stress can determine the success of autism treatments.”

Peter Gorbing, Chief Executive of Dogs for the Disabled, said: “As a charity we constantly see the benefits that dogs bring to people’s lives, far beyond practical support. Our expertise training assistance dogs led us to believe we could also support families affected by autism with a well-trained pet dog. We have now supported more than 600 who have attended our PAWS workshops. To see evidence that pet dogs really can assist by lowering the stress of parents of children with autism is a real endorsement of the charity’s work. It’s also a great example of a low-level intervention – a key element of the UK’s national autism strategy – so this is significant encouragement for our plans to expand the PAWS service.”

Research Director at Research Autism, Richard Mills, said: “Families of children affected by autism commonly experience persistent and damaging levels of stress. This permeates all aspects of family life with serious consequences for health and wellbeing and on overall coping and quality of life. In exploring low-level, socially appropriate interventions in reducing parenting stress and promoting wellbeing, this collaborative study has clearly demonstrated the benefit of introducing a well-trained pet dog into the family.”

Carol Povey, Director of the National Autistic Society’s Centre for Autism, said: “Caring for someone with autism is not always easy, which makes it vital that parents can access a range of different support. For instance, 81% of carers tell us that they developed anxiety due to a lack of support, while 64% said this led to depression. Many parents of children with autism have told us about the benefits of having a family dog, so it’s promising to see evidence that this can significantly alleviate their stress levels. But, as the authors recognise, the individual nature of autism means that it’s unlikely that dog ownership would benefit all families in the same way. Autism can have a profound impact on families but the right support at the right time can make all the difference.”

Pets and their therapeutic effects

A prestigious Veterinary journal has published a feature in which Professor Daniel Mills and Dr Sophie Hall discuss the therapeutic effects of companion animals.

Professor Mills, from the University of Lincoln’s School of Life Sciences, and Dr Hall, who will be joining the team on a project related to pet dogs and families with autistic children, also focus on the influence of pets on childhood development in the article for Veterinary Record.

Despite a growing body of evidence indicating many benefits surrounding the relationship between people and pets, the authors suggest even more novel interventions using companion animals are possible in preventative healthcare.

They conclude: “Animal companionship is potentially more cost-effective and socially acceptable than technological solutions. Companion animals should not be considered a luxury or unnecessary indulgence, but rather, when cared for appropriately, they should be seen as valuable contributors to human health and wellbeing and, as a result, society and the broader economy.”

Pets are often used to support people, but there are few controlled investigations into the effects of human-animal companionship in medical settings, and this is an area that researchers are keen to develop further at the University following Dr Hall’s appointment.

Along with reducing overt emotional responses such as anxiety, there is evidence to suggest that animal companionship can be highly influential in reducing a sense of isolation.

The constant companionship of an animal has been shown to reduce feelings of loneliness in elderly care home residents. And a further study with patients in palliative care showed that the presence of a dog, cat or rabbit improved the mood of patients. Similar mood changes have also been observed in children with autism and Alzheimer’s patients.

The team is now engaged in a long term follow-up of their earlier controlled study, in conjunction with the Parents Autism Workshops and Support Network, examining the effects of pet dog ownership on UK families with an autistic child. Results from the initial study are due to be reported soon in the scientific press. Uniquely, this has examined the effects on the child, primary carer and wider family, since it is hypothesised that all of these might benefit from the companionship provided by a dog.

The positive effects of animals in reducing negative emotions and increasing positive emotions may improve not only quality of life but can also help with the development of effective interventions.

Previous research in the field of human health and medical psychology has provided evidence to suggest that dog and cat owners have better psychological and physical health than non-owners. Dog owners are also reported to recover more quickly after serious mental and physical illness, and even make fewer visits to their doctor. All of these effects might have a significant impact on NHS costs at a time when government is looking for cost savings,

The authors comment: “We should be curious about all the ways companion animals can potentially help us and embrace the opportunities provided by a greater appreciation of the impact of companion animals on our lives.
“It is perhaps ironic that in a world that seems to be increasingly encouraging the development of technologies to make our lives easier, an obvious answer to many of our problems may be literally staring us in the face (or sitting on our lap).”

To read the full article ‘Animal-assisted interventions: making better use of the human-animal bond’ in Veterinary Record go to http://ow.ly/uOv4I

Can pet dogs help children with autism?

An animal behaviour expert is to speak at a special conference taking place to explore the potential benefits a pet dog can bring to families with a child with autism. 

Professor Daniel Mills from the School of Life Sciences, University of Lincoln (UK), will be at the conference organised by Dogs for the Disabled, the National Autistic Society (NAS) and the University on Thursday 20th June.

Professor Mills, who has led the Lincoln research with Dr Hannah Wright, said: “This conference is a great opportunity for anyone interested in this subject to come together with like-minded individuals and not only learn about what our research is showing but also to exchange their experiences, so that we can ensure we offer the best possible advice at this time.”

Conference speakers will also include Mark Lever, Chief Executive of the National Autistic Society; Katie Bristow-Wade, Dogs for the Disabled; Anne Memmott, Autism Consultant and Susan Aston, parent of a child with autism.

Workshops on the day will include one for autism professionals on developing practice while setting realistic expectations on the potential impact a dog can have on families with a child with autism. Another workshop will be delivered for parents on the potential value a family dog can have in facilitating play and development for children with autism.

The conference talks and workshops will cover initial findings from the research undertaken by the University of Lincoln during a three year study, funded by the Big Lottery, which examined how and why pet dogs can have a positive impact on families with a child with autism. The research results, currently under academic review, are expected to be published later this year.

Researchers interviewed a number of families who attended Dogs for the Disabled’s innovative programme PAWS (Parents Autism Workshops and Support).

The charity, which began training assistance dogs to work with children with autism in 2008, set up PAWS in 2010 and more than 400 families have attended its workshops nationwide which demonstrate to families affected by autism the positive impact owning a pet dog can have on family life.

They have also tracked the impact of the dog on volunteer families alongside those without a dog in order to identify the specific dog effect, and are currently analysing the results of an international survey based on their initial findings. The results relate not only to the effect on the child, but also on the family more widely.

Dogs for the Disabled Chief Executive Peter Gorbing said: “The conference is an important opportunity for autism professionals and families to understand better how dogs can benefit children with autism and their families. Dogs for the Disabled is delighted at the difference its PAWS programme has made to many families with a pet dog and is keen to share what it has learnt with others.”

Mark Lever, Chief Executive of the National Autistic Society, added: “Families often tell us that that their children respond well to the company of dogs or develop some sort of special connection, and we are keen to understand the potential benefits further for those who have the lifelong developmental disability. This conference marks the exciting first step for parents and professionals to find out more and the NAS is delighted to be involved.”

The conference is being held at Church House, London.

Neurotypical children in families with dogs needed for control group study

This study is investigating how the presence of the family dog affects child behaviour when interacting with an unfamiliar person, and is part of a larger study funded by the Big Lottery on Pet Dogs and Children with Autism.

We are looking to recruit neurotypical children (without tendencies related to Autism, Aspergers, ADHD or related conditions) to match our existing study population. We are specifically looking for boys between the ages of 4-17 and girls between the ages of 6-13. There must also be at least one pet dog in the family.

The study involves a researcher coming to the home and asking your child two sets of 5 simple questions, with the dog present and without the dog present. The scenario will be video recorded for later analysis. The visit takes no longer than 15 minutes and can be scheduled at a time suitable to you (including evenings, weekends, or half term week).

If you live within 30 minutes travel from Lincoln and would like more information please contact Hannah Wright

hwright@lincoln.ac.uk