When Therapy Goes to the Dogs

An emerging form of therapy for children (particularly those with autism spectrum disorder) is the use of animals, particularly dogs. In recent years, therapy dogs have become a popular form of treatment with children with autism spectrum disorder.

One group of researchers, recently conducted a review of the evidence for using therapy dogs, and the results were encouraging, though more studies are needed to evaluate their effectiveness. “By being able to respond affectionately to human attention, to elicit prosocial behavior and positive feelings, animals seem to possess a unique capacity to serve as an emotional bridge in specific therapeutic contexts and to act as social catalysts,” the researchers write.

The use of therapy dogs to treat children with autism spectrum disorder actually dates back to the 1960s, to the work of Boris Levinson, but serious in-depth research of the therapy did not pick up until the 2000s. This is perhaps due, in part, of the uncertain nature of the disorder, a disorder that is only now beginning to be understood.

Working with therapy dogs, in most cases, follows a certain protocol. For example, “All the interventions reviewed here occurred in the presence of the therapist, who followed a predetermined research protocol that included structured one-to-one (individual) activities designed to stimulate social behaviors and language use. In all cases, results were encouraging since interaction with dogs was able to dampen social isolation and withdrawal in children.” In other words, each session with the therapy dogs was designed around highly structured activities that stimulated interaction between the patient and the animal.

Citing previous research, the researchers report that the therapy dogs had a positive effect on the children with autism spectrum disorder. They note: “[We] found that children were less distracted, exhibited a more playful mood, and were more aware of their social environment when in the presence of the therapy dog.” Furthermore, they add, “verbal interactions were stimulated by the presence of the animal: Children were more likely to talk to the dog, engaging the therapist in discussions regarding the animal, and speaking less about topics unrelated to the therapeutic protocol during the dog condition.”

The researchers conclude, then, that “ . . . it is possible to hypothesize that the identification of specific behavioral patterns displayed during child–dog interactions might provide a novel additional tool for the early diagnosis of some ASD signs, such as deviation from typical attentive and social behaviors (gazes, smiles, directed vocalizations) and changes in posture and movements towards the dog.” More research may be needed to “fill in the gaps,” as it were, of therapy dog research; however, this area remains a promising treatment for children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

Finally, while this articles focus was on canine assisted therapy for Autism spectrum disorder, dog therapy has had promising success with other populations, including those who suffer from PTSD, particularly military and veteran populations.


Berry, Alessandra, et al. (2013). Use of Assistance and Therapy Dogs for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Critical Review of the Current Evidence. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 19 (2) 73 – 80.

Brooke Lamberti

Brooke Lamberti is a content writer based out of Scranton, Pennsylvania. She received a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Marywood University, and has prior career experience working in social work and domestic violence advocacy. She has a passion for writing and helping others.

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