Dogs help families with autism, RSM conference told

By Anna-Marie Lever
Health reporter, BBC News


Dogs can help reduce stress in parents of children with lifelong developmental disability autism, a study suggests.

The University of Lincoln compared 20 families with dogs with 20 without.

Daniel Mills told a Royal Society of Medicine conference early results suggested any breed could improve communication and relationships.

The veterinary behavioural medicine professor hopes to use video footage to show how dogs can improve child eating, sleeping and tantrum behaviour.

At a three-day Parents' Autism Workshops and Support course, the families listed more than a thousand ways their dog had helped - from developing language and establishing a routine to using the pet to request action in a non-confrontational way.

The Saunders family decided to get Boogie, an 18-month King-Charles-cocker-spaniel cross, because of four-year-old son Oak's close connection with animals.

Rowan Saunders said: "Oak has particular problems with stepping out the front door. To him, it is like he is stepping off a cliff.

"So we have started to use Boogie to help Oak with transitions, from going from one situation to another.

"It is reassurance. He thinks that if Boogie can do it, then he can do it.

"Oak's verbal skills are better. He is eating different textured foods as he feeds Boogie different foods. We do a lot of grooming with Boogie, so Oak is learning about self-care and hygiene.

"In the last four months Oak has excelled himself - he keeps surprising us everyday."

Professor Mills said: "While there is no shortage of opinion on how dogs can help, there has been little money given to scientifically look into this."

The Dogs for the Disabled charity has had 1,300 inquiries during the past six months from parents asking how dogs could help them.

'Alert dog'

image captionOak and Boogie learn from each other

Chief executive Peter Gorbing said: "Dogs are relatively low-cost and low-tech.

"Now is our moment. People were previously sceptical of what role they could play, but recently I have found a more receptive audience. Things are changing rapidly."

At the Royal Society of Medicine conference, it was also announced the first "alert dog" to help those with the sleep disorder narcolepsy had been placed with a young girl.

Medical Detection Dogs chief executive Claire Guest says: "It is very early stages yet, but we are hopeful.

"If successful, this dog could change the girl's life."

The charity is also using dogs to detect bladder and prostate cancers.

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