Autism Assistance Dog

What is the 4 Paws for Ability
Autism Assistance Dog Program?

4 Paws was the first agency in the United States to begin placing task trained Autism Assistance Dogs and the first agency known to place these assistance dogs with tracking skills.

4 Paws Autism Assistance Dogs can be trained in a variety of tasks to assist a child.  These include behavior disruption, to distract and disrupt repetitive behaviors or ‘meltdowns’, tethering to prevent and protect a child from wandering, and search and rescue tracking to locate a child who has eloped, as children with autism are inclined to do.

4 Paws, unlike most service dog agencies, does not exclude those who qualify for the program based on too little or too great a need.  Any child who meets the qualifications of the program, can provide physician approval, and provide a safe home for the dog, will be approved for the program. 4 Paws is able to ensure all children qualify, instead of a small subset, by partnering with client families on fundraising to provide the autism service dog their child needs.  To read about our current fee for service, click here.

Our autism program is geared toward young children with autism and those teens and adults with autism who, will for all intents and purposes, never be independent and will function more like children. Because we specialize in 3-unit teams (child, service dog, adult handler), 4 Paws is not able to provide a service dog to those families with high functioning teens and adults with autism or Asperger’s who will handle the dog on their own.  There are other organizations who specialize in adult handling.

4 Paws Autism Assistance Dogs Make a Difference

Joshua with his Service dog Zebra. Once in a store someone asked his mom, what kind of dog it was. “He’s a Zebra!” said Joshua

Children with disabilities present a unique challenge to parents.

The child with Autism does not connect well with his or her environment. 

Autism manifests itself most strikingly as impairments in communication and in the formation of social relationships.

Children with Autism are often nonverbal, or when they are verbal they usually do not use the skill to actively communicate with other people in their environment.

Many children with this disability have a strong need for a structured, routine environment; change creates feelings or fear and/or anxiety. Some children even exhibit serious behavioral changes including, at times, self-injury.

Our Autism program is geared toward young children with Autism and those teens and adults with Autism who will for all intents and purposes never be independent and function more like children. We are not able to provide a service dog to those with high functioning teens and adults with Autism or Asperger’s who will handle the dog on their own.


Sleeping – or the lack of sleep

May 23, 2008. From a happy parent. I had to share what is happening to us. To bring the rest of you up to speed, we have an eight-year-old high functioning son. We got our dog last March. Our son had NEVER NEVER slept a night in his bed. His “security item” or “transitional object” has always been Dad or me. So success number one: for the last two months he has been sleeping in his own bed with Popeye/Shadow. YEAH!!! no crying, no muss, no fuss.


Message from Linda: While Scooby may love cats more than the cats would prefer, Autism Assistance Dog, Scooby is the friend Tyler has waited so long to find. Scooby knows nothing of the word “different”; in Scooby’s eyes Tyler is the perfect friend just the way he is.

Tyler loves Scooby like he has never been able to love a person. He kisses him all the time. He is so proud too. He announces everywhere we go, “This is Scooby, my service dog. Scooby, meet might sound strange, but Scooby brought Tyler over the “kissing” hurdle. Tyler could not stand to kiss before Scooby. He would allow me to kiss his cheek or forehead, but would never kiss back or let you kiss his lips. He kisses me now and even kissed me on the lips once. He said, “I’m kinda gettin’ used to that. Scooby kisses me too.”

What a gift!!!! Thank you for Scooby and all he has brought to our family. We wouldn’t be complete without him. Love, Linda and Tyler


Another behavior common to Autism is a tendency to wander away. Parents often refer to their children as “Houdini,” stating they are able to escape from even the most secured environment and the family usually has multiple locks on every door and window in the home. When this happens, the child may be in a life-threatening situation, especially if they are already out of the physical sight of their caregiver.

Children with Autism often don’t respond to their names consistently, if they respond at all. They rarely understand the many dangers in their environment; an approaching car; a stranger with ill intentions; an aggressive dog separated from the child by nothing more than a gate, which is quite easily opened. Many parents report that their greatest fears center around their child being missing or when out with their child that they might look away only for a minute and turn to find their child gone or darting out into the path of an oncoming car.


Joshua Melton, meets Autism Assistance Dog, Skeeter for the first time

No one knows exactly what causes Autism but the children often appear to live in a world we have little understanding of. Often they participate in ritualistic and repetitive behaviors, sometimes for hours at a time. They may spin a coin on the floor, flap their hands in their face, or filter sand through their fingers.

Many times parents report that a hand placed on their child’s arm for only a brief second might cease the repetitive behavior for several minutes or longer. Some researchers believe that children with Autism have a heightened level of sensory input; at times resulting in sensory overload.


A child in a gym may become agitated; holding their hands over their ears and repeating moaning type verbalizations when a basketball is being bounced on the floor over and over, and cease the behavior the minute they are moved to a quieter room.

At 4 Paws we have discovered a magic that exists between children and dogs, a magic that can become a life-saving miracle for a child paired with one of our Autism Assistance Dogs. One of the tasks the dogs can be trained to do, that is unique to 4 Paws For Ability is the ability to track a child that has wandered away, even if the child has been missing for quite some time!


When a child with Autism disappears their life is in danger, and an adult looking for them may begin their search in the wrong direction; while a 4 Paws Autism Assistance Dog trained in search and rescue never takes the wrong path and quickly leads the adult to the missing child!

While the needs of each child are unique, all of the families contacting 4 Paws have one very important common need; every family reports that their child has few, if any, friends. Other children don’t understand their behaviors and even higher functioning children, often diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, are not able to form the social relationships needed to sustain friendships, even at the elementary school level.


Asperger’s is exceptionally difficult for parents, who watch as the disability interferes in their child’s life, as the children most often know that the other children are making fun of them and/or leaving them behind as they form their social groups. One child getting an Autism Assistance Dog spoke to 4 Paws staff during his interview. He told us that he was from another planet where no one makes fun of people who are different. His mother reported that the teasing he received at school had so seriously affected his life that he tried to commit suicide by overdosing on medication.


On a quiet train ride through the zoo, Noelle sits by herself. While previously her Mom would have had a death grip on her, with Noelle safely tethered to her service dog, Reagan, fun is had by all.

At 4 Paws we find it intriguing that there are so many families with our Autism Assistance Dogs, that report their child has formed or is forming, what appears to be a close relationship with their dog partners. It is interesting to say the least that we have found the children in our program are able to relate to their dogs in ways that they were unable to with humans.

Our research indicates that the child with Autism displays behaviors toward their dog that they rarely, if ever, display towards human companions. In addition, the child that is partnered with a 4 Paws dog is found to seek their dog out for companionship, comfort, and confiding in ways never shown to family members.


One of our children who has a 4 Paws Autism Assistance dog, is a three-year-old child who has the ability to communicate verbally but rarely, if ever, chooses to use it until a wonder-dog named Harley entered her life. Within a week she could be found giving her new doggie partner commands to sit, down, stay, and come. In addition, she would spend hours laying on top the cuddly hound type dog, whispering secrets in his ear.

We would all like to know the secrets of a three-year-old child with Autism, but Harley is a true to the end, “best friend” who will never share the secrets she has entrusted him with!


Noah’s family once had to hold onto him whenever daring to do some shopping.

Noah (left) now walks calmly beside his 4 Paws service dog Murphy, holding to a second leash and entertains himself playing with Murphy’s ear.

Some parents of children with 4 Paws Autism Assistance Dogs report their child has showed greater sensitivity towards the needs and feelings of the dog, together with a lack of anger and aggression.

In spite of a strong dislike by many children with Autism to being touched and/or hugged there appears to be an evident enjoyment of tactile stimulation and comfort level with the dog.

What we here at 4 Paws have seen time after time in our Autism Assistance Dog Program shows that the child with Autism may be able to demonstrate behaviors toward their dog that they do not display to people, even family members, and which are similar to those associated with close relationships.

So, we take the children with Autism and all the difficulties they have with verbalization, communication, and social relationships and pair them with a well trained quality service dog specifically trained to meet their unique needs; to create a consistency in the child’s life as their dogs go every where that they go, even within places of public accommodation, and the educational system bringing along with them: consistency, stability, and calm reassurance that the feelings of anxiety or fear are not needed because the trusted buddy is by their side.

As they meet their dog partners and develop the bond that we have been speaking of; an unconditional, unconventional, and a miraculous loving friendship is developed and with each day passing, grows stronger, bringing along with it, a chance that the child may transfer their new social relationship to the humans in their environment as well.

Sophie, is shown here tethered to her Autism Assistance Dog, Bob at a local mall

There are several additional skills that we at 4 Paws have developed to assist the child with everyday comforting, and behavioral management. When the child engages in repetitive behaviors as discussed above and when a simple hand placement on the child is all that is needed to have the behavior cease, at least for a few minutes but often even for hours, a service dog trained specifically to respond to a child’s most repetitive behaviors is just what they needed.

We use the behavior the child engages in to trigger a behavior in the dog. So for example, the behaviors of a child that jumps and flaps their hands in front of their face has been used as a hand signal for the dog to lay their nose or foot on the child, gently nudging them to stop the repetitive behavior, even if for a few minutes. For adults, the continuous nudges or hand placement they engage in to stop their child’s unique, repetitious behaviors can become burdensome and/or frustrating.

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Behavior Disruption – Touch

Another skill that is sometimes requested by parents with children who have Autism, is the ability to have their child walking in front of them rather than their having to have their hand on the child at all times. In these instances, a longer leash is used by the parent, which allows them to be in total control of the dog while they are teaching their child a new routine holding a second, shorter leash as they walk beside their new partners.

As they approach the street, the 4 Paws dog is trained to stop and sit any time the parent requests them to and it is hoped that when the dog stops to sit the child will also stop, even if for a minute, giving the parent the time to catch up to the child and assist them in crossing the street safely. It is also possible for families to actually tether their child to the dog from the dogs harness to the child’s belt loop.

The parents maintain the child’s safety by holding a leash attached to the dog to easily stop the dog using basic obedience commands. In this manner, parents may engage in such tasks as writing a check for their groceries without the fear their child will disappear in the few moments it takes to look at the check as you write it. Parents can ask the dog to either “stop” momentarily or “stop and sit/down” when more time is needed.

Behavior Disruption – Lap

The mission of our Autism Assistance Dog Program is to provide friendship, companionship, unconventional, and unconditional love for the child. A source of comfort and consistency when environments change and anxiety might be high, to help the children with Autism and the other family members find a higher quality of life and bring a more independent life to the child and the support to encounter problems and obstacles set in front of them by Autism and overcome any challenges that they are confronted by.

It is also our hope to provide a dog that will be the child’s best friend and buddy, so that the child will relate to the dog on a higher social level than they ever experienced before, and transfer these accomplishments to the humans which also live within their home and/or school environment.

With the number of children currently being diagnosed with disabilities falling in the Autism spectrum, at an increasingly higher frequency and at much younger ages that ever before; the need for Autism Service Dogs is on the rise. 4 Paws is proud to be the Autism Assistance Dog Program most recognized by national Autism organizations. We seek every day to develop more ways in which our dogs can help families with children that have Autism. We encourage parents to ask us about any situation, no matter how silly it may seem to them, which they hope a dog could help with; if it can be done and completed in such a fashion as to not affect safety issues for either the child or the dog, we will give it our best shot.

All over the country teachers and therapists have found that including therapy dogs or service dogs placed with children, into their therapy sessions, shows a marked increase in the child’s participation and functional level.

If you think an Autism Assistance Dog would benefit your child, please take a moment to read about how our program works. Click on the FAQ link “FAQ” and read through the questions and answers. If you feel this program will work for you, download the child application. The 4 Paws recipient and their family are involved in the entire process, from application, through fundraising, and on to training. The dog is chosen specifically to meet the child’s needs. Once we decide on a dog, a picture is sent and the child can name the dog. We want our families to know the dog is theirs, the dog will help them, and the dog will be in their possession quickly because they are working to make that happen!

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David, who received the first 4 Paws Autism Assistance Dog placed in Canada, meets his k9 partner, Kai for the first time.

Kai seems to understand that David needs some space to get used to having her with him.

How dogs know what they do is a mystery we will never find the answer to but when it comes to children with Autism, this mystery of how the dogs know just what their young partners need,is nothing less than magical.


Autism Dogs At School

A Letter From Cathy Foust:

Noah has autism and is in second grade in a large public school. Our school staff was supportive during our fundraising, but administration was very reluctant to have a dog in school. We presented to the school board and met with the superintendent and they finally agreed upon a trial with data.

We had our 30 day review meeting for Harry yesterday and it went extremely well. August Noah was averaging escaping from staff 15-20 times per day and since we started to school with Harry in October, the number has dropped to zero – except for the day he learned to take his harness off! In August Noah was also averaging over 100 aggressive acts (pinching, hitting or kicking) per day towards staff and the number is now 10-20.

Harry was the only intervention tried during this period – so there was no arguing that he was the reason for the drastic turnaround. The IEP team kept saying they couldn’t believe how smooth of a transition Harry made into the school day and they are all amazed at how well trained and gentle he is. After the first few weeks the 900+ kids acted like Harry was just another student. The only issue we’ve had is with PE because Harry gets pretty excited when the balls start flying – but we’re working on that.

Our main goal in getting Harry was Noah’s safety and a decrease in behaviors. Everyone during the meeting commented on how much calmer Noah was during the school day when he was with Harry. He has also started to interact more with his peers, initiates and returns greetings spontaneously and is just more willing to participate. Also, since Harry started going to school with Noah he has received his first phone call (not sure what was said??) birthday party invites and lots of drawings and notes sent home from his classmates. This was not something we expected, but it’s definitely icing on the cake.

We have spoken with administration about being a contact point for other districts that have questions about4 Paws dogs at school – we’re hoping they agree. Harry has definitely made a huge difference for Noah in a few short weeks. The school has a Hero Award board for staff members and Harry received the sweetest award for his hard work. Everyone that works with Noah just loves Harry and the peace of mind he brings when he’s tethered to Noah. They are finally able to focus more on academics and less on behaviors.

If you have any questions about Harry and school I’d be happy to let you know what we’ve done so far. We have tried many interventions, therapies, drugs, etc. since we started down this autism road, but Harry has definitely been the best medicine for Noah and our family.

Cathy Foust, St. Peters MO


At 4 Paws, we understand the unique challenges for children with Autism. Because we are training parents and not children, though, it is best when the child can attend the training. We will make an exception if approved in advance. Only one parent needs to attend the training as long as another responsible person (teen or adult) attends to help with child care.



4 Paws Autism Assistance Dogs