Dog therapy may improve social skills in children on the autism spectrum

For four months, the children engaged in twice-weekly sessions where they learned how to approach and give instructions to the dogs using physical gestures.

 Illustrative image (photo credit: COURTESY CEO OF DOGS FOR PEOPLE ASSOCIATION PAUL ALMAKIAS)
Illustrative image
(photo credit: COURTESY CEO OF DOGS FOR PEOPLE ASSOCIATION PAUL ALMAKIAS)

Training dogs can improve communication and social skills in children on the autism spectrum, according to a new study by researchers at Ariel University in collaboration with the Dogs for People Association.

The study, led by profs. Esther Ben Yitzhak of Ariel University and Ditza Tzachor of Shamir Medical Center, examined several behavioral indices related to communication, independence, movement and sociability within the children prior to and following treatment. Until now, there have been few studies examining the effect of dog therapy in children on the autism spectrum. 

Some 73 kindergarten children including 12 girls and 61 boys between the ages of 3 and 7 and a half, were divided into two groups. For four months, the children in one of the groups engaged in twice-weekly sessions where they learned how to approach and give instructions to the dogs using physical gestures. The other group served as a control. The groups then switched roles for the following four months. 

The first group receiving treatment demonstrated significant improvement in communication and sociability that continued even once their treatments had concluded, though no improvements were seen in the indices of movement and independence. The second group showed similar improvements following their own treatment. The study also showed that working with the dogs led to a reduction in repetitive behaviors in the children. 

 Dog illustrative (credit: FLICKR) Dog illustrative (credit: FLICKR)

The university explained that the study's authors believe the non-judgmental and predictable nature of dogs helps the children through their interactions learn skills that can then be transferred to other social and communicative situations.

"In light of the findings, it can be concluded that treatment through 'dog training' improves communication and social skills in young children on the autism spectrum," Ben Yitzhak explained. "The program may be an additional treatment option to be used alongside treatments that have been shown to be effective when implemented at an early age."