Therapy dogs ease plight of autistic children

Lucky, a therapy dog, plays with an autistic child at the Beijing Rehabilitation Center for Autism.
PHOTO: Therapy dogs ease plight of autistic children

Dou Dou, a 4-year-old, is all smiles as he pets a golden retriever sitting quietly at his feet in a barely furnished treatment room at the Beijing Rehabilitation Center for Autism.

The autistic child is unable to understand social norms and can easily become upset and violent.

The dog acts as a comfort to him and also entertains him. During treatment, Dou Dou hugs it, touching specific parts of the animal's body as his therapist asks him to.

Zhang Yueheng, the centre's director, said, "We use these specially trained dogs to help with rehabilitation of autistic children, and they are working far better than I had expected.

"Just like a guide dog can help a blind person, a therapy dog can help an autistic child."

Zhang said autism impairs the ability to develop socially and form relationships, but children are naturally inclined to approach a loving animal, making it possible to help them develop socially to some extent through a therapy dog.

Lu Ping, an executive with the Beijing Loving Animals Foundation, an animal welfare organisation, said studies have shown that therapy dogs can help to relieve loneliness, pain and anxiety. They can also help to lower blood pressure and boost self-esteem.

Shen Yinshan, a 64-year-old grandfather, said he appreciated the changes therapy dogs had made for his autistic 4-year-old grandson.

The boy was very different to other children when he was younger. He seldom spoke, made no eye contact with others and was so timid that he would cry at the sight of any animal.

He started receiving dog-assisted therapy in the middle of last year, during which a therapist encouraged him to play with a dog and to learn simple math. Now the boy is much livelier.

"He has become much braver and even dares to hug the dog," Shen said.

However, access to therapy dogs is limited.

The Beijing Rehabilitation Center for Autism has raised and trained therapy dogs since 2007. But every year, among dozens of puppies, only one or two will succeed.

Therapy dogs must be easy-going and self-possessed so that they will not become agitated when petted or hugged. It is also important that they don't attack people even if they are treated improperly.

The centre is the only facility in China where therapy dogs are used in clinical treatment for autistic children.

The practice is common in some countries and regions overseas and there are established training, evaluation and certification systems for therapy dogs, Zhang said.