Autism Assistance Dog

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

Service Dogs Autism Assistance Dogs logoThe CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Protection) reports that 1 in 68 children have been identified as having Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). It is typically diagnosed around 2-4 years old. Autism has some common possible characteristics such as issues with social communication, adapting to a new environment, awareness of danger, emotional stability, etc. However, because Autism is a spectrum disorder each child is still very unique in the degree they are affected and the things with which they need assistance. The CDC says, “A diagnosis of ASD now includes several conditions that used to be diagnosed separately: autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), and Asperger syndrome. These conditions are now all called autism spectrum disorder.”

There is no cure for Autism, however there are a number of interventions and tools which have proven effective in helping a person with Autism improve in communication, behavior, emotions and social interaction. One such tool can be an Autism Assistance Dog.
At 4 Paws for Ability we specialize in working with children, which is why we have developed a model to train Autism Assistance Dogs on a three unit team (child, service dog, adult handler/parent). Our program is the best fit for young children with autism and teens and adults who are very affected and will not be able to live independently. In public, the parent (or another trained adult such as a one on one aid at school) must have control over the service dog at all times by holding the leash, issuing commands and reinforcing appropriate behavior. 4 Paws is not the right fit for families with high functioning teens and adults with autism or Asperger’s who wish to handle the dog on their own or live away from home. There are other organizations which specialize in the model of the person with autism handling their own service dog.

4 Paws Autism Assistance Dogs Make a Difference

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. 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.

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 wandered. Below are just a few examples of trained tasks service dogs can do to improve the lives of the children they serve:

Help with Safety

A 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. The family usually has multiple locks on every door and window in the home. 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; or a neighbor’s pool. Many parents report that their greatest fears center around their child going 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.


Dogs have amazing noses and can be trained to learn the specific scent of individuals. The Autism Assistance Dogs are trained in search and rescue skills to follow the child’s scent and to bring the parent or handler to the child. This skill can be done if the child with autism elopes from the home, at the store, on vacation, etc.

Client Experience with Tracking

July 10, 2017 – We practice tracking for a reason.

This afternoon, Curtiss was put to the test.
Patrick and I were doing yard work. He was watching Bryson. Or I was watching Bryson. Both of us were watching Bryson.

But then, he was gone.

Patrick rushed inside to search and I frantically scanned our yard and started to go up the street. Before I got too far, Patrick clipped Curtiss’ leash to his collar. Not his harness, there was no time for that.

We didn’t need a special harness though. Patrick spoke to Curtiss in a different tone. It was a tone that meant business. Not fun and games ‘go find your boy’. No. This time it was different. It was with purpose and intent.

“Curtiss. Go find your boy.”

He nailed it. Patrick’s van. Windows rolled up. It was HOT. And Bryson was sitting inside. Just hanging out. I would have never thought to check there. I was already headed up the street when he was found.

If we didn’t have Curtiss, who knows what would have happened. It was HOT today! And inside the vehicle was sweltering. As a firefighter/medic, Patrick nearly came apart…just picturing the kids he’s rescued from hot cars…and the ones who weren’t rescued.

It isn’t about neglect. It isn’t about parenting. It is about the mysteries of autism.

And THIS story is about the miracle of a dog, who knows his boy, who is trained to find his boy. And today, the miracle of a dog who saved his boy’s life.


While out in public, wandering can be prevented by utilizing a tether system in which the dog wears a harness that a tether/leash is attached to for the child to wear or hold. Note: the primary leash is always in the parent’s hand and the parent must have complete control over the service dog at all times. Sometimes the child just holding the second leash is enough to give the child security and a boundary, so you see reduced attempts to wander. However, for some children or at certain times, if something catches their eye or they become upset they may still dart off. In these cases we attach the leash to something the child is wearing such as a belt or backpack so the child is able to walk freely next to the dog, but if attempting to wander the dog will be able to act as an anchor.

Client Experience with Tethering

From Will’s teacher:

Happy Friday!!! I thought I would update how things are going at school. A huge focus for Will and Loki is walking without [Will] dropping [to the floor]. Will has greatly increased his independence during transitions throughout the school while tethered to Loki!! It really is amazing!

During PE the students typically walk around the perimeter of the gym to warm up, and Will would drop a majority of the time, while being tethered to Loki he will walk the entire time. Will is not always thrilled because he is doing a lot more physical activity. His frustration continues to decrease because he knows that it is the continued expectation! We are now having Loki tethered to Will during transitions between our center rotations within the classroom to increase his independence even more. This is something we just recently started for both boys and we can’t wait to see the progress they will make together!!

Behavior Intervention

No one knows exactly what causes autism, but the children often appear to live in a world of which we have little understanding. They may participate in ritualistic and repetitive behaviors, sometimes for hours at a time. They may spin a coin on the floor, flap their hands by their face, or filter sand through their fingers. 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. Children who are nonverbal or struggle using their verbal skills to effectively communicate may become frustrated and have a meltdown. Many children with autism have a strong need for a structured, routine environment; and change creates feelings of fear and/or anxiety. Some children will even cause themselves self-injury when they are upset or due to their repetitive behavior.

Client Experience with Behavior Intervention

March 27, 2017 – As many know, we go to Disney all the time. Before Demo, Dom was always in a stroller. Today, we were at the Magic Kingdom for 6 hours. Dom walked, no stroller. This has NEVER happened. And to be honest, I never thought it would. Not only did Dom walk, but he also had ZERO behaviors. ZERO!!!

It was the perfect day! The kids were well behaved, the weather was awesome (mid 70s) with clouds and a breeze, and I was on my a-game for telling people no they couldn’t pet Demo. Normally, if we can I will allow it. But it was crowded, so today was a no pet day.

We took tons of breaks, tons of water, and had tons of fun! Demo was a rockstar, nothing bothered him and he has already changed our lives so much! I am one very grateful mom!

Interrupting Repetitive Behaviors

When the child engages in repetitive behaviors, many 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. An Autism Assistance dog can be trained specifically to respond to a child’s repetitive behaviors, either by the parent’s command or by using the behavior the child engages in to trigger a response from the dog. For example, the behavior 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 place their paw on the child. Or if a child were to be hitting their head, the service dog could learn to recognize that as a cue to gently nudge the child. Additionally, if the child were repeating a phrase over and over, a parent could command the service dog to go over and nudge or touch the child. Note: although service dogs are highly trained, they are still dogs and do not have the ability to have higher judgement reasoning to interpret an environment as either safe or dangerous (ie: stop the child from going into a street if a car is coming, from touching a hot stove, preventing or alerting if the child leaves their bed, etc). Often the deep bond that the child forms with the service dog causes them to be more easily redirected from repetitive behaviors due to the positive redirection.

Calming and Preventing Meltdowns

An Autism Assistance Dog can be trained to provide assistance with meltdowns by providing calming and comforting interactions on the parent’s command. For example, if the parent sees the child feeling overwhelmed, they can have the service dog perform deep pressure by laying across the child’s lap. If the child is crying the dog can be trained to recognize that sound and come up and snuggle with the child or give kisses to provide comfort. Often the service dog intervening will either reduce the length of the meltdown or even prevent it from occurring. These skills are task trained and meet the definition of a service dog which allows public access. This differs from an Emotional Support Animal whose simple presence provides comfort and does not have general public access.

Additional Possible Benefits

The following benefits are not task trained skills, however they are possible additional benefits that may be derived from having an Autism Assistance dog.

Best Friend

While the needs of each child are unique, all of the families contacting 4 Paws have one very important common need; their child has few, if any, friends. Having a service dog that is bonded closely to their child is an opportunity for the child to have a best friend who loves and accepts them unconditionally.

Client Experience with Friendship

May 29, 2017: Rickson said “I want to hug him. How do I hug him?” So I showed him…. And then he did…

It’s hard to explain what that simple statement means, but it means more than I could ever even describe. That simple statement is why we started this process two years ago. It is why Jerbal is going to help Rickson in life. On day one these two have already shown this process works. Their bond will take time, but from the very first moment, it started with a simple hug.

Sleeping Better

Many parents report that their child sleeps better at night because the service dog is sleeping with them and providing that constant comfort. Parents may also choose to use some of the service dog’s task trained skills to provide comfort to help the child to fall asleep. If the child wakes up at night, they are able to snuggle with their best friend and buddy and fall back asleep.

Client Experience with Sleeping Better

March 30, 2017: Strait up just got kicked out of bed by Logen who has to at least co-sleep to fall asleep and usually through the night. He’s nonverbal, but made it pretty clear it’s his and Lilac’s bed now. He even made sure I knew I should sleep next to mommy (always looking out for me)… It’s enough to bring a tear to a grown man’s eye, but of course I’m too cool for that :-). Thank you 4 Paws For Ability and everyone who helped to make this happen!

Social Bridge

Typical children may not understand or know how to relate to a child who is displaying meltdowns and repetitive behaviors. When the child with autism has a service dog, suddenly they are the most popular person on the playground or in public and everyone wants to interact with them.


Many children enjoy learning how to brush, feed, and take care of their service dog. This gives them the opportunity to be responsible for something and they can take pride in their efforts as they learn important life skills.


For children who struggle with verbal skills, asking the dog to perform a trick or other command can be an incentive to communicate. In public, the child has the opportunity to talk about their service dog with other people.

Assisting with Transitions

The Autism Assistance dog has the public access rights to provide a source of comfort and consistency when environments change and anxiety might be high. Many families are able to go more places because they have the service dog. The dog is not only able to provide the task trained skills in public, but also their presence helps to deescalate a situation.

Common Questions

How do I know if my child would be a good fit?

At 4 Paws a child is able to qualify for the program if they have a disability and their needs match our services. Often, interactions that your child may have had with other animals give clues to the relationship that they may have with a service dog. Many parents report that their child is calmer around animals and loves to interact with them. Please be aware though that bonding takes time. Even if your child doesn’t automatically relate to the dog you can still use the tasks the service dog has been trained to perform to provide assistance.

Can the service dog stop my child from dangerous behaviors?

Service dogs are highly trained animals, however they are trained to respond to commands from a handler. They are unable to use higher judgement and reasoning to interpret a situation as either safe or dangerous. A handler can use commands such as the behavior disruption skills to cue the service dog to go up to the child and touch or nudge. This is more of a reminder to the child to stop rather than the dog actually preventing the child from doing a behavior.

How long is the process?

The process to receive a service dog is multi-step and depends on the time it takes to complete the application, meet the fee for service, and class availability.

To learn more about the 4 Paws process, please visit:

What is the cost?

Although it costs 4 Paws For Ability between $40,000 – $60,000 to train and place each service dog, families are only required to provide part of that payment as a fee for service. To find the current fee for service, please visit:

Do I have to travel?

Yes, we have a 2 week training class you will need to attend before bringing the dog home. Because Autism Assistance dogs are always placed on a three unit team (handler, child, and service dog) three individuals are required to attend, though more are welcome as well. These must be: one of the child’s legal guardians (ie parent) to be trained as a primary handler for the service dog, second adult to provide support and assistance to the child, and the child who is receiving the service dog.

When is my child old enough to handle the service dog?

The service dog certification is a three unit team and all members of the team must be present for the service dog to be able to go in public. The handler is often the parent, however, they may train other adults to handle the service dog. In most cases the child with autism will never be an independent handler of the service dog, as 4 Paws requires that the handler have the ability to make complete and correct choices at all times in public situations. When a family has been working with us throughout the child’s life they can apply to have the child handle the dog when the child is on a second or third dog and is now an older teenager or adult. These placements will be made on a case by case basis as long as the child meets the criteria of being able to make correct choices for themselves and the dog and can complete a 4 Paws placement training class with no help from an adult caregiver. If the child does not meet these criteria a second option is a three unit team with adult support. This certification allows the child to handle the dog in safe situations such as a store that is not crowded but the parent or another trained handler must be with the child/adult child at all times. This option requires the child attend a 4 Paws training placement class and complete the class with adult support.

Learn More

If you think an Autism Assistance Dog would benefit your child, please take a moment to read about how our program works in the following links. If you feel this program will work for you, download the application to get started. For questions, please email and 4 Paws staff will help answer your questions!