Dogs are a favorite pet to many people, and rightfully so. With the right disposition and when properly trained, they can be loyal pets who give their owners their unquestionable love and devotion.

Now it appears that dogs can be great companions to children with special needs. In fact, a new study has determined that specially-trained canines help reduce the stress levels of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

What Is ASD?

Autism is a complex developmental condition that can have a profound impact on communication and socialization skills. The onset of autism usually begins before the age of three and can continue into adulthood.

ASD refers to a range of conditions that share certain similarities. These include:

  • Autistic disorder, or "classic autism"
  • Asperger syndrome
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder, or "atypical autism"

In many instances, the terms ASD and classic autism are used to refer to the same thing. Children with autism often have trouble engaging with other people and interpreting social cues like a smile or a request.

Though not universal, autistic children often times have difficulty regulating their emotions, thereby making social interaction that much more difficult.

Stress in Autistic Children

Exposure to stress can be particularly hard on a person with autism. Stress can lead to a loss of control that results in frustration and anger, and can potentially result in a child hurting themselves or someone else.

Canine Comfort

To help address this problem, researchers turned to service dogs as a way to help reduce an autistic child's anxiety, which was determined by measuring cortisol levels in a child's saliva. Cortisol is at its peak around a half-hour after waking up. This level, known as cortisol awakening response (CAR) then decreases throughout the day.

Researchers took measurements of CAR levels in 42 children with ASD at three separate time points: before, during, and after introduction to a service dog. During this time, parents observed and answered questions about their child's behavior.

What they saw was that when dogs were present, the child's CAR levels were significantly diminished. However, those levels spiked when the dogs were removed. Additionally, parents reported a reduction in problematic behaviors when the dogs were present.

The findings, published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, are the first to measure tangible physiological benefits of service dogs and give credibility to the notion that they may one day be a valid part of caring for autistic children.

If you have questions or concerns regarding autism and your child, speak with your pediatrician. For more information about autism, visit the website for Autism Speaks.

To learn more autism and service dogs, visit the homepage for Autism Service Dogs of America.

Further Reading: