2 years ago, my life changed, because we got a puppy! Our breed of choice was the Black Russian Terrier, an uncommon giant breed and a ‘Terrier’ only by name! Today, “Bear” is 2 and a half years old and she weighs 51kg.
I am not an experienced dog owner. In fact, Bear is only my second dog, the first I only have vague memories of because I was so young when we had her. So I write this article from a novice point of view – here are some of the good things about my wonderful dog and some of the benefits of dogs generally for people on the autism spectrum! I have also included a few additional things to consider at the end (because being a dog owner is a big responsibility).
1. Dogs encourage a good routine
Most people with autism need and like a routine, or find that they function best when there is a routine in place. Your dog will also enjoy a routine. He or she will probably expect for things (meals and walks) to happen at certain times, so it is up to you to fulfil this. Routines are good. It’s a nice and effective habit to get into to walk your dog at a certain time and/or on a particular route, and to feed him or her at certain times.
2. Dogs give you a way to make friends
Before I got my dog, I didn’t have many friends, nor did I actually know many people in my local area. I didn’t expect dog walking to be so sociable actually (so, be warned, some people with autism will not like the social aspect of owning a dog), but I have made several fantastic friends through my walks. When you have a dog, you meet all sorts of people because you’re not stuck being around only your own age group (like you are when you’re at school or university). It’s been lovely for me to build relationships with people I’d probably never have met otherwise. Like many people with autism, my best friendships are with those who are much older or younger than me/those in different ‘life stages.’ Dog walking has given me a pathway to meet such people!
3. Dogs encourage you to take exercise
Exercise is one of the greatest things you can do for your body and mind. The government recommends that every person should strive to get at least 10,000 steps per day. If you have a dog, it’s a lot easier to achieve these steps. You can take regular walks throughout the day. Exercise is a good, natural treatment for better mental health.
4. Dogs help you to become more independent
When you have a dog, you are wholly responsible for him or her. Pets of any species rely on their owners for everything but, arguably, dogs even more so. I have cats as well as my dog, and whereas cats just get on with their own things(!), it is very clear my dog is dependent on me. Autism is a developmental disability which means the skills needed to be ‘independent’ may be lacking. Having a dog will help you improve these skills. For example, you will have to learn how and when to feed them, when to walk them, how to groom them and brush their teeth, how to flea and worm, etc. Not to mention keep them up to date with their vaccinations and visits to the vet.
5. Dogs help you use basic social skills
Dogs are quite an easy way to practice the most basic of social skills on a regular basis! If you have a dog, probably at least once a day you will have someone come up to you and make small talk. Whenever I take my dog out, I get people coming up to me saying things such as “Wow, lovely dog” to which I respond “thank you”, “Can I stroke her?” to which I respond “yes”, “What breed is she?”, etc. People who have dogs get talked to!
6. Dogs make you feel more relaxed
I take my dog with me wherever I can and she definitely makes me feel a lot more relaxed in public. It is nice having her to stroke when I feel anxious. She’s also an excuse to look ‘occupied’ so, if I’m feeling uncomfortable in public and struggling to interact or ‘fit in’ with people, I can play and cuddle my dog instead, or even just make an excuse such as let people know that “I’m going to take my dog out for a bit.”
7. Dogs make you feel less lonely
Dogs are fantastic company. They generally love being in your presence. Unlike cats who generally come to you for affection only when they want it, dogs are always keen! All I have to do is call for Bear and she will come and find me – wherever she is in the house.
8. Dogs like consistent language and rules
Lots of people with autism thrive on rules and consistency. This is great for dogs and training dogs. When training your dog, you will have to learn to be very consistent in what you say and what you do, what you allow and don’t allow(!) your dog to get away with. Dogs respond best when there are clear rules and simple black/white language – people with autism may be like this anyway! For example, when you feed your dog, you can always make him or her sit by saying the word “Sit”. This becomes a rule – the dog doesn’t get fed if he or she is not sitting. People with autism work well with rules – so do dogs.
Additional considerations/risks of dogs for people with autism:
- A dog is very, very demanding of your time and attention. It is not advisable to have a dog if you are out of the house a lot or if you do not have the time to train and play with him or her (note: training and playing and giving your dog general attention is for life, not just in the puppy stage). Think about your lifestyle now but also try to imagine how it will be in a year, five years, 10 years’ time. Your dog will need you for their whole lifespan.
- If you suffer from depression or anxiety, have regular ‘shutdowns’, or easily and often feel overwhelmed, you will need to ensure you can still take care of your dog. It’s no good staying in bed all day – your dog will still need her walk and toilet trips outside.
- Dogs can be noisy, easily startled and just generally easily ‘triggered’/excitable. They can bark, growl, etc. It’s something to be aware of if you have noise sensitivity. If someone walks by outside when you are in your house, your dog might start barking. If someone knocks on the door, your dog might start barking. If your dog is fast asleep and you get up from where you are sitting, they can get up too. Some dogs make a lot of noise every time they reach the park because they are so excited. If your dog sees another dog in the near distance, he or she might pull to approach them. Dogs are not exactly ‘calm’ creatures – especially in the puppy stage. If you are someone who likes quiet and struggles to focus without a peaceful environment, a dog might not be right for you. They can quickly disturb you and your environment if something disturbs them.
- Be aware that dog walking can cause lots of extra socialising. If you really struggle with – or strongly dislike – socialising, be prepared to meet lots of new people. I imagined long walks on my own but, since getting Bear, I’ve met so many people and so many people now know me by name and stop to chat if they see me! Even when I’m not walking her, I’m now well known in my town compared to before! If you aren’t comfortable with this, be prepared to walk your dog during unsociable hours (early mornings, late at night).
- You will need to have lots of patience, particularly if you have a clever, stubborn or independent breed of dog. Puppies need to be trained (that’s again, potentially more socialising, if you go to classes) and idealistically it would carry on for the rest of their life. It requires patience and dedication. If you have a short temper, get bored easily, or struggle to maintain attention, think about the effect this will have on the way you train your dog. You can’t give up – you have to be ruthless.
P.S. I’m actually a cat person. ;)
Original article on www.thefinchleyvet.co.uk