The Transformational Power of Pets for Children with Autism

By PetcoLori on May. 31, 2017


For more than five years, I’ve been writing about the amazing journeys of pet parents and their pets. In every situation, I’ve “discovered” the obvious: That pets understand us better than we will ever understand ourselves. And, in that collaborative space, we are truly transformed.

This became especially evident as I met the parents of children who are on the autism spectrum. Having a child on the spectrum is stressful for the child, their parents and their siblings. Every day—and every outing—brings a new challenge. Sadly, most of the challenges these families face are the result of outside pressure to be “normal.”

The Human Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI) recently released the results of a long-term study that explored the effects of pet dogs on families who have children with autism spectrum disorder. The study, published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, revealed that dogs significantly improved family functioning compared to families without a dog. The study also found a reduction in parent-child dysfunctional interactions for those families with dogs. In other words, for families with autistic children, dogs de-stress the child AND the family. They can also help improve parent/child relationships

Lori Shayew, founder of The Gifts of Autism, has more than 20 years of experience working with children on all levels of the autism spectrum. Currently in the process of finishing her first book on the topic, she explains the possibilities that pets offer these families.

“Pets are authentic,” Shayew explains. “Pets accept everything and provide unconditional love and acceptance. They never want to change anyone.”  


Shayew adds that, in her work with children on the autism spectrum, she has discovered that these children are highly sensitive, and are quick to pick up on judgment or agendas, something that pets do not have.

“When you think about it, it’s almost impossible not to have a positive interaction with a dog,” she adds. “They come from an accepting place.”

Shayew, who, through her website and weekly podcasts works with autistic families around the world, adds, “Autistic people are amazing, they see the world so differently,” she enthuses. “They have a special gift and I believe many of them will help change the world.”

Laura Sylvester, founder of Good Dog! Autism Companions and the mother of 15-year-old Elliot, who is on the autism spectrum, agrees.

“While an autism service dog is not for every autistic child, we have seen amazing transformations for many families and for the children,” she says. “Even if you don’t want a service dog and want to get a pet, please do not start with a puppy. Puppies are highly unpredictable, and that unpredictability will create stress—not reduce it.”

Sylvester’s foundation, Good Dog! Autism, recently placed service dog Blaze with Wyatt. His mother, Natasha, is blogging about Wyatt’s transformation. As Blaze and Wyatt get to know each other, Wyatt is experiencing the world in new and profound ways.

Says Natasha, “In his six years of life, this is the first time Wyatt has walked through stores without holding my or his dad’s hand. Since Blaze’s arrival, Wyatt is more independent and confident in public outings and more calm during stressful moments.”

Natasha adds that having a service dog “draws more attention to your family, but I feel like people are a little more patient with us.” 


Christine Langager’s eight-year-old son, Cameron, also is on the autism spectrum. Her husband, a marine, is stationed at Southern California’s Camp Pendleton and is currently deployed. The family is conducting Operation K9, a fundraiser to help raise funds so that Cameron can have his own service dog. They began the initiative after witnessing Cameron’s interactions with an autism center’s service dog.

“We saw a difference with Cameron almost immediately during a team meeting,” says Christine. “Cameron has social anxiety, and internalizes it during these meetings and usually gets very upset.”

Cameron doesn’t like answering questions or talking about himself. But, with the center’s service dog, Drake, in the room, their usually difficult meeting became an entirely different experience.

“Cameron spent the entire time playing and petting Drake,” Christine recalls. “He answered questions. He even gave suggestions for things that would help him. He doesn’t verbalize that much—ever—so for him to provide that—it was such a moving and huge moment.”

Overcome with emotion, Christine immediately made plans to raise funds for Cameron’s own service dog. The family is happy to announce that Cameron has been matched with Flinn, and that they are now in training together while they continue their fundraising efforts.

Sometimes the transformation takes awhile, as is the case with Braden Sanchez and his service dog, Linc. Five months after getting Linc, Braden still appeared to be having difficulties bonding with his dog. But when the family took a trip to visit Braden’s older brother, they witnessed something highly unusual: Braden walked through the airport without his headphones. Over the course of the weekend, Braden visited his brother’s college, went to restaurants and visited multiple public areas that normally would have caused some level of discomfort. But, with Linc by his side, Braden was calm and displayed no distress.

Today, with Linc by his side, Braden’s life is has changed completely. Rather than being quiet and reserved in class, he is an active participant. He has new confidence and has made many new friends.

“Autism is a disability you can’t see,” explains Braden’s father, Tony. “People are cruel and quick to judge your parenting skills when they see your child act out in public. Now, with Linc, Braden’s outbursts are few and far between, and if they do happen, people look at Linc with his vest, and rather than giving judgments or nasty looks, there’s compassion and understanding.”

How has having a pet transformed your life or someone in your family? Share your story in the comments below.

0 Kudos
by Laura Sylvester
‎08-24-2016 10:07 AM



Thank you so much for sharing this story! It's great to see the positive impact dogs can have on families like ours shared with the general public! Thank you for taking the time to really understand our commuity and our kids!


Wags & Gratitude,

Laura and the Good Dog! Team



Thank you so much for sharing this story! It's great to see the positive impact dogs can have on families like ours shared with the general public! Thank you for taking the time to really understand our commuity and our kids!


Wags & Gratitude,

Laura and the Good Dog! Team

Posted on Aug. 24, 2016
About the Author
  • Lori Wildrick is a lifestyle writer who focuses on pets, family life and financial topics. She shares her home with three teenagers, one dog and four cats. One of her favorite hobbies is trying to identify all of the wild birds that visit her yard thanks to a nearby bird sanctuary.
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