Developing Social Skills through Interacting with Dogs
Anna, 41, is a full-time carer for her four children*, Jessica, 11, Claire, 10, Ben, 8, and Thomas, 15 months. She lives on the Devon coast with her partner, Hannah, 38. Two of their children have been diagnosed with autism, and they are at the Asperger’s end of the spectrum. Daily life can be challenging, but in February this year, everything changed when they adopted a dog called Rosie.
Studies have shown that children with autism respond positively to interacting with dogs, and it can help develop their social skills. Since Rosie has been the family, Anna’s children have learnt how to read body language, which has helped them prepare for social situations.
Autism Affects Everybody Differently
“Autism is fundamentally a social communication disorder. It’s a funny mix of good stuff like being very honest, clever and kind, combined with frustrating issues like sensory differences and misreading social situations. All children with autism have different personalities, and autism symptoms can vary with each person.
“Children who are very bright, verbal and look just like all the other children, often get into trouble at school. People think because the child can talk, they can understand, so if things go wrong, the children are told that they are being naughty. For example, when Claire was little, she was trying to escape from school and was becoming violent towards staff when they tried to restrain her. She now is very good at understanding teachers, and she’s coming top of the class in maths and science.
“Jessica is desperate to get things right. She works hard at school and does well, despite all her difficulties. Most children with autism are very rule-driven, and she is great at observing others and copying their actions to fit in. However, sometimes she misreads a social situation and gets upset because it didn’t go as she expected, so we spend time explaining how to handle this. We have to help her with things like organisation and remembering to eat, as she gets caught up when she’s stressed.”
Rosie Becomes a Part of the Family
Anna and her family decided to adopt a dog earlier this year, and they were eager to find one who was in need of some love and attention.
Balkan Underdogs is a charity which was formed to rescue dogs from the Balkans in Southeast Europe, where there are hundreds of stray dogs. Their aim is to rehome dogs from this area to their forever homes in the UK.
“Earlier this year we asked Balkan Underdogs if they had a dog that was medium in size, would like lots of walks and who would enjoy living in a busy family with a young baby. We didn’t have a specific checklist, as every dog has something special about them. They suggested that Rosie would be a good fit for us, so we fostered her initially before making the commitment to adopt her.
“Choosing a dog who’s had a tough start in life and needs extra help gives the children a positive message about us valuing family members who are not ‘perfect’ by everyone else’s standards, and valuing what everyone can do.
“Rosie helps to encourage the children to go out for walks. All the children enjoy walking and nature, but find it hard to get motivated to change activities or go out. Being able to say to them ‘Rosie needs a walk!’ makes it much easier to get them out, because they care about Rosie’s wellbeing.
“Home needs to be a real haven for the children. They go out to school and have to cope not only with a lot of commuting, but they put in twice the effort most people do, just to get through their day.”
“When Rosie initially arrived she was constantly shaking, so we put her in a crate with some blankets over it to make a cosy den.
“The children took turns to read her stories nearby, to get her used to gentle attention. She started hopping out of her crate in the evenings when she thought nobody was looking. Whenever anybody moved, she ran back to her crate. We let her out in the garden, and she hid under the shed.
“After a fortnight she came and sat on the sofa with me one evening, and over the next few days built up to resting her head on my leg. We took it from there once she trusted us, and gave her a bath and got her on a lead for the first time up to the local park. Along the way, the children have learned to be patient with her. They’ve learned what her doggy body language means and how to respond to it.”
How Rosie Helps the Children Improve Their Social Skills
“Rosie loves Thomas, and is always trying to take care of him – I once raised my hand to ask him for a hi-five, and she woofed at me thinking that I might hit him! It’s been great for the children to see how their efforts with Rosie can have such a positive effect on her life, and that what they do can make a difference.”
Learning dog body language has helped Jessica and Claire to understand human body language, and improve their social skills.
“The opportunity for the children to reach out and help Rosie with her worries has been great for both her and them, and they have gained friends and supporters in one another.”
Rosemary, Andrew and Jana’s Story
Rosemary, 54, was previously a Manager at Autism Initiatives and her son Andrew, 23, has been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. Asperger’s is a type of autism which is commonly classified by having difficulties with communication and social interaction. Like Anna, Rosemary has noticed that her family dog, Jana, has helped Andrew improve his social skills.
“It took Andrew years to socialise with his family and cousins. He does now, but only in small groups and in non-threatening environments. Walking Jana gives him confidence and a chance to socialise, as he sees other dog owners as nice people.”
Living with Asperger’s also means there are other daily challenges which Andrew has to try and overcome.
“Andrew also has sensory differences. He hates the feel of soft touch, so he won’t allow any physical contact with humans. This meant he was difficult to feed and console as a baby. He will, however, cuddle Jana for hours on end.
“Other day to day challenges include social exclusion, lack of organisation and loneliness. Andrew never had a friend throughout his school life and was badly bullied due to his social awkwardness and his brutal honesty. So his dog and his brother have always been his best friends.”
Jana Arrives from the Balkans
Andrew has always had a dog around to keep him company until his Boxer dog sadly passed away last year. Eventually, Rosemary and Andrew were ready to welcome another pet into their home and decided to adopt Jana from Balkan Underdogs.
“We chose Balkan Underdogs because Andrew and I wanted to adopt. I found them while searching the internet, and I saw a video showing how dogs are caught and treated in the Balkans. After watching that video, we knew they were the charity for us.
“We chose Jana as she was a frightened little lady, who was scared of her own shadow. She is settling in brilliantly; you would not believe it is the same dog. Jana is a real character.”
How Jana Helps Andrew Improve His Behaviour in Social Situations
“Jana not only helps Andrew with communication, but she helps with routine because of walk times and feeding. Dogs are non-threatening, not judgemental, and encourage social interaction and care. Andrew even initiates conversations with other dog owners, while out walking Jana.”
As well as helping to improve Andrew’s behaviour in social situations, Rosemary has also seen other differences in his behaviour since Jana arrived.
“Andrew is more organised, happier, and sociable. Jana helps him release and express emotion. He is very proud and protective of her, particularly with her bad past, so he just wants to ensure she is happy. To hear Andrew laugh at her antics is magical.”
The information in our blog articles is for personal use only and not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment plans. We are not medical health practitioners or mental health providers. If you’re worried about a potential medical condition, contact your GP or call an ambulance in an emergency situation.
*The children’s real names have been omitted for privacy reasons