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Can Therapy Dogs Help Kids With Autism?

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So a service dog can make a big difference to the whole family, Nishawala said.

Cirulli's team found that service dogs might also benefit children's behavior. In the two studies they reviewed, parents generally said their children were better behaved and more attentive after the family got a service dog.

There are still plenty of questions, though -- about both therapy dogs and service dogs.

For one, children with an autism spectrum disorder vary widely in the types of issues they have and their severity. No one is sure which kids might benefit most from time with a trained pooch, Nishawala noted.

She said more studies are needed -- not only larger ones, but also ones with better "definitions." That means making sure the children involved have been formally diagnosed with a form of autism, defining what the "therapy" is, and being clear about what outcomes the study is assessing.

There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that a dog could help bring a child with autism out of his shell, said Nishawala, but scientific evidence is just coming in.

Cirulli agreed that better defined studies are key.

It's possible, Cirulli noted, that a dog could have negative effects on some kids with an autism spectrum disorder. An animal might, for instance, increase "hyper" behavior.

For parents wondering whether adopting a dog is a good idea, the answer seems to be, "It depends."

Cirulli pointed out that these studies focused on dogs trained to be around children with autism. So the findings cannot be assumed to apply to your average Fido.

You might first want to see how your child reacts to a friend's or neighbor's dog, Cirulli suggested.

"Getting a dog could be a nice thing for the family," Nishawala agreed. "It could be therapeutic for everyone."

If you are interested in a trained service dog, be prepared for an investment. It costs about $20,000 to train a dog, and the family would have to foot much of that bill.

More information

Autism Service Dogs of America has more on which kids might benefit from a canine companion.

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