20th December 2010, 11:59am  (updated 20th December 2010, 12:01pm)
Dogs take the lead in helping families with autistic children
PAWS Animal behaviour experts at the University of Lincoln are taking part in a major new research project which could offer hope to many families with autistic children.

Working with the UK charity Dogs for the Disabled, Daniel Mills, Professor of Veterinary Behavioural Medicine, will oversee the research project Parents Autism Workshops and Support (PAWS) at the University. The National Autistic Society is collaborating on the project which is funded by the Big Lottery.  

Dogs for the Disabled currently train assistance dogs for children with autism. This new project recognises the large amount of anecdotal reporting of the ‘special connection’ that can happen between pet dogs and some children with autism. The new PAWS service will offer families the chance to develop the potential of that relationship through a series of workshops and on-line support.

Professor Mills said: “There is an enormous amount of anecdotal information out there to suggest that dogs can not only help children with Autism Spectrum Disorder but also that they may help alleviate stress within the family more generally. There is, however, a lack of good science to show exactly what the effect is or how reliable it is.

“We hope through this study to be able to pinpoint and quantify specific benefits for carers so they can have realistic expectations and get the most from their relationship with a dog.  We have a great team and I am very optimistic that this work will lead to direct benefits for many families and individuals.”

Mark Lever, chief executive of the National Autistic Society, said: “Through the National Autistic Society helpline and contact with our members we regularly hear from families who report that their children respond well to the company of dogs or develop some sort of special connection with them. Therefore we are delighted to be able to work with the University of Lincoln and Dogs for the Disabled on this study to start to understand and evaluate the effects of such a programme and take the idea further.  

“There are more than half a million people in the UK with autism and we are delighted to be able to support projects of such great potential and practical value.”

Initial feedback has already been positive.  One family who took part in a recent pilot for the project said that there had been some startling changes to their three-year-old son, Jude, since they started working with their pet dog, Claude.  Jude’s mother, Kristina, said: “There is no doubt in my mind that Jude’s development has taken massive leaps as a result of his relationship with Claude.  The day we brought Claude home was the day that Jude actually spoke directly to someone for the first time.  Up until then, Jude would talk, but always to himself, even if he was talking to you, he didn’t direct the conversation to you.  But with Claude, Jude actually started talking to the puppy, albeit a one way conversation!

“Thanks to Claude, Jude will wear his school uniform, provided Claude wears a school tie too.  If Jude is upset, Claude comes dashing in with a wagging tail and thereby helps to diffuse a potentially stressful situation.  Jude has learnt to sample new foods provided Claude tests them out first and has even finally understood the importance of toilet training having watched Claude learning to do the same.”

Course leader for PAWS at Dogs for the Disabled, Katie Bristow-Wade, said: “PAWS is different from many of the other animal assisted therapy projects that have gone before because it aims to make the most of the relationship a family has with a pet dog.  We take families through every step of the process, from choosing the right dog for their family, through to the early days of introducing the family to a dog and of course the all important training.  But we don’t stop there; we also offer advice on identifying tasks to work on with the dog and we can put families in touch with local trainers.  Every family will also be able to access on-line support and share experiences with other families through the dedicated PAWS website.”

For more information on Professor Mills see: http://www.lincoln.ac.uk/dbs/staff/479.asp

For more information on the project visit: www.dogsforthedisabled.org
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