Researchers at UCC say they have proven that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can benefit from having a dog, particularly at a young age.
Lead researcher, Dr Louise Burgoyne of UCC’s Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, said there was “huge merit” in the State providing more resources to provide the specially-trained dogs.
She said the research, published by the British Medical Journal, proved what had long been assumed anecdotally.
“It is an anecdotally established fact, and there had been quite a bit of qualitative research done, but when the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind were chatting to us they said ‘we hear this all the time but it is never measured’ — so we measured it,” she said.
The study analysed the responses of 80 parents with a dog and 84 from the waiting list for a dog, all of whom completed a questionnaire between October 2012 and March 2013.
The questionnaire focused on the impact of having an assistance dog, in the areas of: Child safety from environmental hazards; public acceptance and awareness of ASD; a sense of competence with managing a child with ASD; and the levels of caregiver strain.
Dr Burgoyne said the results indicated that those with a dog in the family improved the quality of life for everyone in the household.
The dog acted as kind of “bridge” between children with ASD and society — providing a calming and reassuring presence, but also providing a physical tether in outdoor environments which reduced the risk of a child “running off”.
“It brings autism into the open,” Dr Burgoyne said of dog assistance.
“Parents said that the public perception of a child [with ASD] is better with a dog.”
Dogs are primarily trained by the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind in Cork City, but such has been the demand that there is now a backlog of families seeking a dog, and the waiting list for this year has already been closed.
Dr Burgoyne said there was “huge merit” in the idea of the Government increasing the resources that could be made available to train more dogs to meet demand.
There are currently 188 service animal interventions registered with the standards body Assistance Dogs International and the training programme takes more than a year.
Rachel Neglia, whose eight-year-old son Eoin has had a guide dog called Hector for the past three years, said the animal had had a transformative effect on her son.
“It has definitely made him more social and able to talk to other people,” she said.
The family, who live in Cork, were on a waiting list for three years before they got Hector in 2011 and Rachel said the benefits included being able to go on foreign holidays and long-haul flights with Eoin and the dog.