Gretchen Carlise is a doctoral candidate at the University of Missouri (MU) College of Veterinary Medicine's Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction. The MU system also includes the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. When it came time to develop and research her doctoral dissertation, Carlisle turned to both research centers for a study combining both areas of study. Her dissertation explores the many ways a family dog can enhance the lives of autistic children.

Carlisle, the mother of two children and "mom" to Peppy, a toy poodle, is quick to point out that not all dogs are appropriate for autistic children, just as they're not all appropriate for any child. Not every child in the autism spectrum disorder (ASD) would like to have or would benefit from having a dog in the family. Some families will find more value in having a cat, horse, or rabbit as a family pet, while others will do better with no pets at all.

Seventy parents of children with ASD were interviewed for Carlisle's study and completed the Social Skills Improvement System Rating Scale (CABS). All the children were being treated at the MU Thompson Center and those with dogs in the household completed a Companion Animal Bonding Scale.

Carlisle's study revealed:

  • There was a dog in almost two-thirds of the 70 households.
  • 94% of parents with dogs said their autistic child had bonded with the dog.
  • 89% described their child as "very attached" to the family dog.
  • While rating themselves using the CABS, children with dogs described themselves as being highly bonded.
  • 70% of all parents said their autistic child likes dogs.
  • Children with dogs scored higher in seven of eight areas of social skill than those without dogs.

Parents described the experience of a family dog as beneficial in teaching the child about responsibility, experiencing unconditional love, and enjoying companionship they don't find elsewhere. Many of the children bonded more strongly with the family dog than with other family members.

Other benefits of dog companionship the parents described include stress relief and learning the lesson of empathy. They also noted their children were having more happiness and laughter in their lives as a result of interaction with the dog.

Additionally, the dog companion often proved to be a social ice-breaker between the autistic child and other children at school or in the neighborhood and with adults in the child's life.

Carlisle's dissertation was published in the March 2014 issue of the Journal of Pediatric Nursing.

Source: Carlisle, Gretchen K. "Pet Dog Ownership in Families of Children with Autism: Children's Social Skills and Attachment To Their Dogs (dissertation) (pdf)." University of Missouri. Curators of the University of Missouri. Dec 2012. Web. Apr 22, 2014.