How assistance dogs can help people with autism

Atlas is a Belgian shepherd who alerts or responds to crises, opens doors, guides out of one place to a quieter one, navigates the city when the owner is in crisis, seeks medicine and calls for help when needed. He is the service dog or assistance dog of Arthur Skyler Santana de França, 22, from Distrito Federal, who is his trainer and has autism.

Arthur, who is autistic and a dog trainer, with his companion dog Atlas

Photo: Reproduction / Personal archive

Maybe you’ve never heard of a service dog for autistic people, but in the area of ​​treatments involving TEA (Autistic Spectrum Disorder), animals appear as great allies, in addition to serving as faithful helpers, like service dogs, like Atlas. “When I’m really overwhelmed, I don’t know where I’m going, so Atlas helps me navigate the city,” says Arthur, who, in addition to training Atlas, works at a specialized kennel where he trains another dog.

very beautiful to see how the autistic easily connects with dogs. And from this bond, dogs end up being a bridge to the social environment and interaction with people, in addition to enhancing other therapies”, reports psychologist Manuella Balliana Maciel, specialist in animal-assisted therapy for over 18 years and founder from Instituto Cão Amigo & Cia. She attends to children with the presence of her dogs, who have undergone careful evaluation to make sure that they will behave with all the common situations in therapy, without reacting in a negative way.

In the case of the assistance dog, training is also very rigorous and begins before the animal is born. “It starts with choosing genetics. In addition to a good temperament, it is necessary to have genetics prone to work, and based on that, the couple is chosen. When the puppies are born, tests are carried out to find out which one is more apt to be a service dog”, explains Arhtur. These tests assess the dog’s temperament, if it is sociable and trainable, in addition to the presence of certain “drives” – for food, hunting (to train it with balls) and specific musculature, for example.

The next step is socialization, with the puppy interacting with the parents and sibling. At this stage, he is also exposed to all stimuli – people, animals, environments, different textures – to provide an ideal range of socialization so that he does not feel uncomfortable in any situation. “In urban areas this is very necessary, because the noises are loud and the service dog is exposed to a lot of things”, says Arthur.
Then there are obedience and public access training (knowing how to behave in public environments). After about a year, the training moves on to the task part, the same one that Atlas is currently going through – which is something very specific, as it depends on the needs of each person.
The best breeds for the service dog task are Labrador, Golden Retriever, Collie and Giant Poodle. “But any breed can be suitable, as long as the dog is selected for the role”, says the trainer, who chose the Belgian Shepherd for a specific need of his disability, which involves tactile sensitivity. “Atlas is perfect because the fur has a specific thickness and its weight is also ideal for me. The Labrador would be too heavy and the golden has a fur that I can’t touch,” he explains.

Not all autistics, however, can have an assistance dog, as many have difficulties dealing with basic issues of hygiene, food and the like, even as adults. “So it is necessary to assess whether this person is able to have a dog, because it is a life too, which involves the responsibility of giving food, bath, games and rest”, guides Arthur.

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