I always thought I was a cat person and would never get a dog - they were too much (too noisy, too smelly, too busy). I should have learned by now, however, that you have to keep an open mind about where life will take you - especially when you have an autistic child.
Until lockdown my son had a morbid fear of dogs, but in July his wonderful support worker got a Cavapoo puppy and his view completely changed. He returned home after his first visit with the puppy on cloud nine, much calmer and very cuddly. Since then we have seen an ongoing positive impact, and he has also shown great dedication to the puppy - taking her for walks, bathing her, training her, and totally adoring her.
So the pressure mounted for us to get our own puppy. I was aware from work of the evidence that dogs can be beneficial for autistic children. Some of this research has been about assistance dogs, and how they can help with issues such as road safety, trying new things, communication, building relationships and emotional reassurance*. In terms of family pets there is also evidence that the human-dog bond raises levels of oxytocin (the hormone that makes us bond socially and feel snuggly) in both the dog and the owner - mirroring, though of course not replicating, the bond between humans and infants.** This may be particularly helpful for autistic children.
With this knowledge, and seeing how much positivity dogs seem to bring to our son's life, we agreed to get a puppy. He was happy to get any breed, so I set him the task of finding me a dog that doesn't really smell, doesn't drool, isn't too noisy, is gentle and likes to sleep (he pointed out this sounded more like a cat!). He did the research, however, and came up with a whippet. Further reading uncovered that whippets are also excellent emotional support dogs - they are very calm and cuddly, and emotionally intuitive. So we set about looking for, and finding, our lovely little whippet puppy Dobby (named after the house elf in Harry Potter, due to the long nose and big ears!).
She arrived last weekend and, as expected, he absolutely loves her. She is beautiful, calm, super soft (so lovely to stroke) and lots of fun to play with. She has already helped him deal with a several stressful situations just by being a calming presence. What I was less prepared for was how much I love her and how much joy she has brought to all of us as a family already. Interestingly, while most research has focused on the effect of dogs on autistic children, there has been some which has shown that having a pet dog also reduces the stress of the parents of autistic children ***. Mindful of siblings and all the stress they can experience too, I asked my 7 year old daughter how she felt about Dobby. She replied: "She is really calming when you stoke her, and really fun to play with. She makes me feel happy inside".
I want to be absolutely clear that I am not advocating everyone with an autistic child immediately go out and get a puppy! They are a huge amount of work and additional responsibility (very much like having a new baby with the sleepless nights and lack of freedom) and absolutely not right for a lot of people. However, we went in with our eyes open about how much work it would be, and are already seeing the rewards. For us it is clear that having a dog can bring a lot to the table for families like ours.
Benefits of assistance dogs:
Benefits of dogs for families with autistic children:
Whippets as emotional support: