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Service Dog for Autism - How They Can Help

A service animal for autism can provide invaluable support by offering companionship and emotional grounding to individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). These specially trained animals can help reduce anxiety, improve social interactions, and enhance overall well-being by offering a consistent and comforting presence in various environments.

Susana Bradford
March 25, 2024
April 28, 2023
12 minute read
Updated By
Matt Fleming
October 5, 2023
Expert Reviewed By:
Grant FiddesGrant Fiddes
SEO Associate
April 28, 2023
August 18, 2021
12 minute read
October 5, 2023
Psychiatric service dogs provide emotional support and assistance with essential tasks to help people with autism lead more independent lives.

Autism spectrum disorder, otherwise known as autism or ASD, is a complex developmental disorder that affects around 2% of adults and children in the United States. However, the severity and symptoms of this diverse group of conditions are varied, ranging from severely debilitating to high-functioning.

Although autism presents many challenges in daily life, a psychiatric service dog can provide a range of benefits for people with autism. Autism service dogs are trained to perform tasks and offer emotional support to people with autism, allowing them to live more independently.

If you want to learn more about how a PSD can help an individual with autism, here's everything you need to know about getting an autism assistance dog. 

Service Dog for Autism

A service dog for autism can be a valuable companion for individuals on the spectrum. These specially trained dogs can provide comfort, reduce anxiety, and improve social interaction skills. They can also help with sensory issues and provide a sense of security in public places. If you're considering getting a service dog for autism, it's important to research reputable organizations and trainers to ensure you get a well-trained dog that meets your specific needs.

At a Glance:

  • What Is a Psychiatric Service Dog?
    Psychiatric service dogs provide emotional support and practical assistance with specific tasks to help their owner manage a disability. 
  • Do I Qualify for a Service Dog?
    You must talk with a licensed mental health professional to determine whether you qualify for a service dog – you likely qualify if you have autism, anxiety, depression, or another psychiatric condition.
  • What Can Service Dogs Do for Autism?
    Adults and children with autism may find assistance dogs helpful in emotion regulation, alleviating anxiety, coping with social interaction, catching the warning signs of a panic attack, or intervening in self-harming behaviors. 
  • How Do I Get a Psychiatric Service Dog?
    You must overcome several hurdles to get a psychiatric service dog, including getting documentation of an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis. Additionally, you need to attend and pay for obedience classes, have a fenced yard, and treat the dog with patience and kindness throughout the training process.
  • Take The Next Steps: Acquire a Psychiatric Service Dog
    Psychiatric service dogs can either be existing pets that have completed a PSD training program or may be purchased already trained, but this may prove too costly for many in need of a PSD.

What Is a Psychiatric Service Dog?

Psychiatric service dogs (PSDs) help people manage a range of mental illnesses, developmental disorders, and learning disabilities. These assistance dogs are specially trained to perform tasks that are difficult for the owner to do themselves. For some, a psychiatric service dog helps manage the symptoms of autism spectrum disorder. Others may have a PSD to deal with schizophrenia, lessen the severity of PTSD symptoms, or help alleviate clinical depression. 

Regardless of the psychiatric concern, studies show that the intervention of service animals can ease the impacts of mental illness and help people lead more independent and stable lives. 

It's important to know that psychiatric service dogs are not the same as emotional support animals (ESAs). Though both types of assistance animals provide their owner with emotional support and help alleviate symptoms of a mental health disorder, ESAs can be any animal or breed. Nor do ESAs require any training! Their presence alone provides a person with emotional support. 

On the other hand, a psychiatric service dog must go through extensive training to be certified. Once the dog's training is complete, it is protected under law by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the Department of Transportation (DOT). These protections allow people to take their PSD anywhere regardless of the usual animal restrictions. By contrast, ESAs have limited access to public places.

What Can Service Dogs Do for Autism?

In most cases, people with autism spectrum disorders can benefit significantly from the presence of a service dog. Here are some ways an autism service dog can provide emotional and task-based support. 

Increase the frequency of social outings

Social anxiety is one main symptoms of autism. Because of this, people with autism may exhibit characteristics like preferring alone time over social interactions, avoiding eye contact, lacking communication skills, or being unable to understand their emotions or the emotions of others. Autism service dogs can facilitate more successful social outings by providing a comforting presence through tactile support. PSDs are also trained to look for triggers in a social setting before their owner enters a room. If the dog senses warning signs of a panic attack, it will block people from approaching the autistic person if they need space to settle their emotions.

Alleviate anxiety and triggers in the environment

Some people with autism experience high levels of anxiety. Roughly 40% of autistic children with autism show signs of severe anxiety disorder in addition to their autistic symptoms. The presence of an autism service dog can lead to significant positive changes in their lives. Autism service dogs provide this support by being trained to recognize anxiety triggers and divert their owner from an overwhelming environment. In other scenarios, a PSD may recognize when their owner is starting to panic – the dog may gently lean against their owner to provide tactile distraction and emotional support.

Provide prescription medication reminders

People with autism may have additional mental health conditions, some of which require prescription medications. Whether it's anti-anxiety medication to soothe anxiety symptoms, a sleep disorder prescription, or anti-depressants, a range of medications may be prescribed to alleviate some of the conditions linked to autism. Because of the importance of medication in helping people with autism, autism service dogs are often trained to remind their owners about taking essential prescriptions. In the event of a panic attack or another psychiatric episode, the dog may even bring the necessary medications to their owner!

Reduce stress and phobias

Many individuals with autism have phobias and high-stress levels. The prevalence of fear-based symptoms makes it difficult for a person with autism to go about their daily life and interact with others. However, the presence of a service dog may reduce stress-related mental health challenges (e.g., agoraphobia, anxiety, and depression) while also improving social responsiveness so that the person can better engage in daily activities.

Detect the onset of seizures and warn others

Epilepsy, also known as seizure disorder, affects nearly one-third of people with autism. An epileptic episode starts in the brain and causes muscles throughout the body to stiffen twitch, or jerk uncontrollably. Some people may even lose awareness during the seizure. A properly trained PSD can support its owner through these episodes. The dog can learn to identify the warning signs of a seizure's onset and clear a room for its owner. They may also learn to alert others about the episode or bring medication to their owner. 

Other Autism Service Dog Tasks

  • Tracking and Tethering: Children with autism might exhibit behaviors that cause them to wander off or get lost; a tracking-trained service dog can help find them and return them to safety. Or, in many instances, the service dog may act as a tether to prevent the child from getting lost, to begin with.
  • Behavior Redirection: For many children with autism, meltdowns are a common struggle. A trained service dog can play a major part in redirecting the child’s behavior while calming and comforting them.
  • Unconditional Love and Friendship: Individuals living with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) of all ages can benefit from the close friendship and unconditional love of a canine companion. The strong bond between them can provide comfort, confidence, and much more.
  • Deep Pressure Therapy (DPT): As with many people living with psychiatric disorders, a service dog can perform deep pressure therapy (DPT) for individuals with autism, providing them with warmth and comfort at a moment’s notice. Your service dog can essentially serve as a weighted blanket — but with more love.

Emotional Support Dog vs. Service Dog for Autism

There are some significant differences between emotional support animals (ESAs) and autism service dogs, especially when it comes to legal protections. While an ESA can provide love and affection that can calm and comfort a child with autism, it doesn’t have the same permissions as a service dog, such as access to public accommodations. Also, an autism service dog is trained to assist in or perform specific tasks related to the individual’s disability, rather than simply supplying support. So while an ESA can provide a modicum of support, an autism service dog can provide specific support and relief that helps the individual in many more ways.

Do I Qualify For an Autism Service Dog?

Anyone living with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), both children and adults, can qualify for an autism service dog. If the individual has difficulty functioning in their daily life, a service dog can provide invaluable support. The first step is to be diagnosed by a medical or mental health professional. 

Consult with a Licensed Mental Health Professional

In addition to visiting your medical doctor, you can consult with a licensed mental health professional (LMHP) to get an official diagnosis for your qualifying condition. At Pettable, our trustworthy LMHP network can connect you with the right professional, who can also help you find the perfect service dog to match your needs.

Health professionals are best able to determine your eligibility or need for a service dog, so it is always best to meet with one of them before making a decision. However, here are a few examples of cases where someone with autism may qualify for or benefit from an autism service dog:

Case 1: A high-functioning autistic adult with depression

Adults with high-functioning autism are likely to go about their day without their condition getting in the way of most daily tasks. However, this doesn't mean their autism is invalid. Instead, these individuals may experience "invisible" symptoms like depression. The comforting effects of a service dog can provide the stability a person with high-functioning autism and depression needs to keep their mental health on track. The PSD may also give medication reminders or offer a tactile distraction from negative thought spirals.

Case 2: A child with severe autism symptoms who is prone to emotional outbursts, anger, and anxiety

An autistic child who exhibits severe symptoms may benefit from a service dog's stabilizing and soothing presence. Many children with autism have trouble dealing with changes in their environment, loud noises, bright lights, and crowded areas. Whereas kids with less severe symptoms may learn to manage these environmental triggers, an autistic child with more severe symptoms may experience anxiety, anger, and even emotional outbursts. There is significant evidence that autism service dogs can provide autistic kids with emotional support, such as calming the child's anxiety and developing more empathy and patience. 

Case 3: An autistic person with epilepsy

Epilepsy is a common autism symptom that may come on suddenly, potentially putting an autistic person at risk if they experience an epileptic attack outside their home. A psychiatric service dog can support the person to ensure they are safe if a seizure occurs. Autism service dogs do this by learning to recognize seizure warning signs. The dog may also learn how to alert another person to receive help. If the person with autism has medication to help with seizures, the dog can bring the medication to their owner to help manage the episode.

Best Service Dog Breeds for Autism

Service dogs for autism can come in all shapes and sizes, and many different breeds are great fits for specific needs. 

  • German Shepherd: This large breed is easily trainable and well-known for producing working dogs in many fields and situations, and that includes providing physical and psychiatric support. German Shepherds are especially fitting for autistic individuals who need help with both.
  • Labrador Retriever: Not only are Labrador Retrievers trainable and adaptable, but they are also among the most loving and friendly dogs with naturally cheerful demeanors. Their loyalty, focus, and companionship are great for soothing anxiety and providing essential comfort.
  • Cocker Spaniels: These loyal and loving dogs are on the smaller side, but their love and support can be as large as any other. Cocker Spaniels are easy to train, and their affection can provide additional comfort.
  • Poodle: This highly intelligent breed comes in several sizes, but their love and affection are always full-sized. Their unique hypoallergenic coat is ideal for individuals who need physical comfort or typically have allergies to dogs.
  • Golden Retriever: Like other similar breeds, the Golden Retriever is one of the most cheerful and loyal of the pack. This breed is perfect for children with autism who need extra love and affection as well as physical care.

How Do I Get a Psychiatric Service Dog for Autism?

Pettable makes it easy to get a psychiatric service dog (PSD) for autism. All you need to do is take our easy assessment, consult with one of our mental health professionals, and sign up for our online PSD training program.

Take our Brief Assessment

First, take our online PSD assessment, which is quick and easy to complete. This helps us determine your eligibility and connect you with the best professional to continue the process.

Consult with a Licensed Mental Health Professional

Next, you’ll have a virtual meeting with a Pettable-approved licensed mental health professional (LMPH), who will evaluate you and provide an official diagnosis for your condition. They can also help you find the perfect canine to fit your needs. Once this step is complete, all you need to do is enroll in Pettable’s online PSD training program.

Train Your Psychiatric Service Dog for Autism

Finally, the most important step toward getting your own PSD for autism is training. If you need professional and convenient training, enroll in Pettable’s online program, which is adaptable to suit your and your dog’s needs. Plus, we offer a 100% money-back guarantee that your dog’s training will provide everything you need for your new life with a service dog.

Get a PSD Letter

For additional peace of mind, we can also issue you an official PSD letter, which while it is optional, can be extremely useful in situations where your condition is called into question. Since you’re already working with the friendly professionals at Pettable, we’ll happily give you this document that certainly doesn’t hurt to have.

How Do I Make My Pet A Psychiatric Service Dog?

Start the process of making your pet a psychiatric service dog by talking with your therapist or mental health professional. Based on their assessment, you can acquire a psychiatric service dog or train your pet to become a PSD.

If you already have a dog, you may be able to train it as a psychiatric service dog yourself. For a dog to be considered a PSD they must be able to perform tasks that assist with a mental disability while behaving well in public.

The hardest part of the process is determining whether your existing pet fits your needs. Many dogs may not be well-suited to the job if you need help completing complicated tasks or receiving support during a panic attack. Statistics show that up to 70% of dogs participating in training programs don't meet the personality and training standards to become PSDs. Because training programs usually have a high price tag – often around $25,000 for the entire program – be sure to find a reputable trainer and organization to ensure your animal is well-trained.

Frequently Asked Questions

Want to learn more about PSDs and autism service dogs? Here are some of the most commonly asked questions about autism assistance dogs.

Can I get an emotional support animal instead?

It depends on whether you want the dog to perform highly specialized tasks or provide emotional comfort. If you need comfort and emotional support from your animal, then an emotional support animal will meet your needs. 

Can someone with autism have a service dog?

Yes! Many people with autism can benefit from the highly-specialized support a service dog provides. However, the person must be patient and unaggressive with the animal. They must also be able to care for the dog and provide it with the necessary training.

What is the best service dog for autism?

Service dogs for autism must be loyal, highly trainable, and remain calm in high-stress situations. German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers, Poodles, Golden Retrievers, and Corgis are some of the best breeds for autism service dogs.  

What do service dogs do for adults with autism?

There are many different ways that service dogs support adults with autism. Tasks include:

  • Delivering medications in the event of a seizure.
  • Disrupting self-harming behavior.
  • Providing tactile relief in a stressful situation.
  • Warning people away if they sense that their owner is distressed. 

Can any dog breed be a psychiatric service dog?

In theory, any dog can be a psychiatric service dog, regardless of breed. However, not every breed is well-suited because of the high level of training that service animals must complete. Autism service dogs must also be carefully vetted for temperament.

Meet the author:
Susana Bradford

Susana is an avid animal lover and has been around animals her entire life, and has volunteered at several different animal shelters in Southern California. She has a loving family at home that consists of her husband, son, two dogs, and one cat. She enjoys trying new Italian recipes, playing piano, making pottery, and outdoor hiking with her family and dogs in her spare time.

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