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There are many reasons to own a dog, not the least of which is the companionship they offer. Dogs are good company and owning one has been shown in numerous studies to alleviate stress, improve mood and sometimes even lower blood pressure. A new study published recently shows that making a dog a part of the family can have significant benefits for families that include a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). In the UK there are an estimated 695,000 people who have an ASD, and many more family members dealing with the stress the disorder bring.

Adding a dog to the family can reduce stress for children with autism

The study was conducted at the University of Lincoln, in England and funded by the a US foundation, the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI) The results were very positive in families with a child on the spectrum, not only reducing stress, but also the number of negative interactions between parents and a child with autism.

While the study involved humans, it was published in the American Journal of Veterinary Behavior. It’s only one of a number of research studies that HABRI is funding, all of which deal with the effect of having an animal on various aspects of human health. While there have been studies on how specially trained therapy dogs can impact children with autism, this study was the first to look at the effects of a dog who was simply a pet, not a service dog. In addition, the study considered the effects on family members as well as the child, another difference in this study as compared to previous research.

Professor Daniel Mills, Professor of Veterinary Behavioural Medicine in the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln, led the research. In a press release from the university he said,  “While there is growing evidence that animal-assisted therapy can aid in the treatment of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, this study is one of the first to examine how pet dog ownership can also improve the lives of those more widely affected by autism. Researchers have previously focused on the positive effects that assistance dogs can have on the child’s well-being and have passed over the impact they might also have on close relatives, but our results show that owning a pet dog (rather than a specifically trained assistance dog) can considerably improve the function of the whole family unit. We found a significant, positive relationship between parenting stress of the child’s main caregiver and their attachment to the family dog. This highlights the importance of the bond between the carer and their dog in the benefits they gain.”

The participants in the study were families who had been part of an earlier study that looked at short-term benefits of pet ownership in families with an autistic child. The latest research followed up with those families a full two and a half years later to see if the benefits shown in the earlier study continued over time. The answer was a resounding yes since families demonstrated reduced stress levels years past the initial arrival of a pet dog and continued to go down on a pretty steady basis. The same stress reduction was not seen in families that did not have a dog.

Steven Feldman, Executive Director of HABRI stated, “Parents of children with autism can experience increased anxiety and stress, and now we have strong scientific evidence to show that pets can have positive effects on these quality-of-life issues. Families with an autistic child should consider pet ownership as a way to improve family harmony.”

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