I’ve met some pretty amazing dogs in my life and we have one in our family. His name is Huck and he is a full-size Labradoodle. But the dogs who participate in the K-9 Club Autism program at Austin Dog Alliance in Austin, TX are as special as they come. They are teaching my son and others like him with very high functioning autism or Asperger’s to relate better to people. Dogs teaching kids to relate better with people? Sounds odd, doesn’t it?
The Challenge with Social Skills
But that’s exactly what they are doing in this innovative program. My son, almost 8, has Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder. Some of his main challenges revolve around poor social skills. He hyper focuses on topics that are of interest to him and will talk about those topics even when they are not related to what other people are talking about. He finds it challenging to notice the cues of other people in conversation. With pain in my heart, I have watched him talking to other kids and continue to talk as they are walking away trying to get away from him, rolling their eyes.
As with many children on the autism spectrum, he has difficulty making eye contact in conversation. Maintaining personal space is something we frequently work on and it has caused him difficulty in social situations with other kids, especially older ones, who seem to be less tolerant of this behavior. Lastly, my son makes odd movements at times as part of stimming behaviors.
Using Dogs to Address this Challenge
Austin Dog Alliance’s program addresses all of these skills and more using therapy dogs, volunteers, dog trainers and a BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst). Here are some specific things the program does:
- In each class, the kids are guided about appropriate manners (staying on topic in conversation, listening and responding appropriately, raising their hand to speak, etc.) during a presentation as trainers talk about different topics each week.
- With the dogs, the children learn about empathy and body language. Dogs communicate via their body so during training sessions with the trained therapy dogs, the children are instructed as to how to pay attention to a dog’s body language in order to know how to respond.
- They learn how their body language (stimming, volume of voice, etc.) impacts the dog.
- They are also taught that hand movements must be slow and controlled in order for the dog to respond to the training commands.
- In addition, in order to do training work with a dog, the child has to get the dog’s attention by getting it to look in his/her eyes. Thus they make eye contact in a non-threatening way.
- Each class has interactive games so that the children can interact with each other. They bond over their interaction with the dogs and friendships are formed. This can be a first for some of these children.
The Future of this Unique Program
All of this is completed in a safe, non-threatening atmosphere and a small group. Anxiety is low and the fun-factor is high, making learning much more easily assimilated. I foresee this program experiencing tremendous growth as the children graduate from the 8-week program with increased social skills and just as importantly, new friends.