The Autism Blog

Introducing a Pet to Your Home and Your Child with Autism

December 11, 2011

We had a chance to sit down with one of our providers here at Seattle Children’s Autism Center to find out what to consider when contemplating introducing a new pet to your home and to your child with autism. Felice Orlich, mother, PhD and proud owner of a border collie pup named Max, let us into her home to find out just what we need to know to help a pet be successful in it’s new family.

So how did you choose Max?

Dr. Orlich: Well, first we found a breeder that socialized the puppy in the house, which helps the puppy become accustomed to noise, handling by kids and everyday household activities. We also visited the breeder several times before bringing the dog home, that way the kids could get used to Max and Max could get used to them. The breeder actually helped pick Max out for us after getting to know Jonah and Ellie.

Was there anything in particular you were looking for in a dog?

Dr. Orlich: We wanted a dog that was comfortable with a lot of movement and sounds and could stay calm when handled. We also looked for a puppy that was good at playing with toys early on. Also, we knew we didn’t want a “yapper” and that it was important for Jonah to feel safe and comfortable with him. Often times, larger dogs feel safer to children. We also considered “trainability”. We wanted a dog that the kids could train and that I could train to be a therapy dog.

How did you prepare your home for Max?

Dr. Orlich: Well it was important for us to have some things in place. As any family with a child (on or off the spectrum) knows, structure is important. We needed to have a solid amount of time to devote to acclimating Max to our home and our routine, not to mention having the time for the “puppy” things like house breaking and chewing… Our schedule now included a new member of the family. So, to prepare for Max and the kids, there was a lot a re-working of our schedule, for example, who would walk him, feed him, take him out, take him to work, to puppy training classes? These were all things we had to plan for ahead of time. We also set up a visual schedule, and rules for how to play with Max, especially around rough play and mouthing.

Do you have any tips on how to coordinate your child’s schedule with a new dog’s schedule?

Dr. Orlich: Following a routine is going to be a key to your child’s success, as well as to the dog’s. For example, Max has a crate and this crate helps us in multiple ways. Crate training is a necessity! For Max it is a safe place for to go when he needs space. For my children, having Max go to his crate is a way to help them during transitions- and we know how hard transitions can be. So for example, when my kids are getting dressed, eating breakfast, brushing teeth, or maybe just transitioning to another activity, we have found it helpful for Max to give them space- he can be quite distracting! Or when they take a nap, it’s helpful for Max to take a nap. This teaches Max when it’s time to play versus be calm.

You mentioned training. Do you take Max by yourself?

Dr. Orlich: You know, in the beginning I did take him to training by myself, but Jonah and Ellie have started going with me. The benefit for the child going is tremendous. They get to learn about cause and effect. For children that can’t use their voice for commands, signs can also be taught to the dog or a “clicker” tool can be used. Also, the child can meet other people with their similar interests and may eventually lead to volunteer opportunities or even a job.

It sounds like you have found a good match for your family. Dogs are probably not right for every family though. Are there any “red flags” that families should consider when getting a new dog?

Dr. Orlich: Definitely. First of all fearfulness- it has to be addressed first, not after bringing a pet into the home. Another consideration is your child’s behaviors. If a child is aggressive to an animal, like a dog, there is a strong possibility that the child could be bitten. Definitely consider the time you have. A puppy is going to take a lot more time than a mature dog. Also, do your research. If you plan to adopt, it’s best to go to a rescue agency since you will have more information about the dog’s history and how they do in their foster family. And please don’t get or give a new pet for Christmas! This is already such a high-stimulation time for our kiddos and you want to introduce a pet when you have time and energy.

Are there any resources you recommend for parents considering a new pet?

Dr. Orlich: The local rescue agencies are a wonderful source for searching for a pet that meets your needs, for example you can search for pets that are okay with children, other pets, pets that are very active, less active, etc. On the web you can check out Breed specific sites will also help you learn about breeds that work well with your child and families temperament. Also, there are a lot of books with pictures that are great for younger kids and include social stories with clear rules about interacting with your new pet. One that Jonah read is called My Dog!: A Kids’ Guide to Keeping a Happy and Healthy Pet, by Michael J. Rosen. The author’s website also has some other helpful information. A great book for parents that helps with some of the behavioral challenges is called Don’t Shoot the Dog, by Karen Pryor.

Anyone out there have a new pet or contemplating a new pet? Where did you find yours? What has worked for your family?