On Autistic People and Dogs

This is my family’s dog Doodlebug. He’s a barrel-chested, chubby-bellied (ok fine, he’s overweight) energetic, happy beagle mix who we’ve had for eleven years now.

A dark-brown and white beagle-mix dog sits next to a person with medium-length curly red hair wearing a green shirt and black shorts (me). The person is looking perpendicular to the camera with their arm around the dog who is looking straight at the camera.

And though I definitely love him now, it wasn’t always this way. I used to be incredibly scared of dogs. I couldn’t even walk on the same street as a dog (even it was on the other side of the road) or be in the same house as a dog. As time went on this fear slowly lessened, eventually enough that I could tolerate it when we decided to get a dog but not enough that I wasn’t still uneasy and sometimes downright terrified of Doodlebug.

Now after having lived with our dog for eleven years I am no longer scared of dogs, and though I wouldn’t consider myself a dog person I do appreciate having him around. What interests me, however, is how often I hear that autistic people are, or were, scared of dogs. Most of the autistic people I know in-person are, or were when they were little, scared of dogs. Like, phobia-level scared.

And yet at the same time many other autistic people I know greatly benefit from dogs, either from service dogs or simply as pets. Whatever the case may be, in this post I’d like to examine the relationships autistic people commonly have with humankind’s favorite canine companion, including why a fear of dogs is so common among autistic people and also how dogs can play such an important role in the lives of many autistic people.

So, to begin, why are many autistic people so afraid of dogs? I think that it’s because, to put it succinctly, dogs can at times be unpredictable sensory nightmares. Dogs are painfully loud and often times like to bark a lot, dogs can often be erratic and difficult to predict, and if a dog decides it wants to lick then that can be a sensory nightmare, especially if you’re not prepared. Many big dogs can be frightening to small children in general as well, as if you really think about it dogs are rather big animals with big sharp teeth, regardless of how sweet they are. Autistic people often have a much stronger fight-or-flight response and we tend to feel emotions, including fear, much more strongly than other people and so are more likely to be instinctively frightened by a large dog. The sensory nightmare combined with a primal fear of big predatory animals with sharp teeth means many autistic people, including myself and many of my friends, develop a fear of dogs when they are very young.

However, dogs are also incredibly beneficial to many autistic people, providing several important benefits that support said autistic person either directly or indirectly. The first benefit is one that most people receive from owning a dog, and that is simply the companionship that comes from having a dog. Dogs, being social animals, are famous for forming strong bonds with the people in their lives (and vice versa) and the seemingly unconditional love they provide back to their humans. Many autistic people have trouble finding friends because of mutual communication differences, and so simply having some unconditional companionship can be incredibly beneficial.

Dogs can also be useful for emotional support, providing a stable emotion “anchor” in the same way that a trusted person might. This can help with emotional and even sensory regulation which are both absolutely critical for going about one’s daily life. I know autistic people who take their pet dogs nearly everywhere because of the support they provide, acting almost like a living breathing comfort item.

Many autistic people benefit from simply having a dog as a pet of course, although trained autism service are a real thing. In many cases these service dogs provide much of the same benefits as a pet dog would in terms of reducing anxiety and providing for emotional support, but there are a few other ways service dogs could benefit an autistic person that a simple pet or emotional support animal may not be able to offer. For one, service dogs can be trained to ground their companion by providing direct sensory input to help with regulation by laying on or next to their companion in order to provide deep pressure input, which many autistic people report helps them stay calm (a bit like a living weighted blanket). This in turn makes the world more accessible by helping said autistic person stay regulated for longer. Autism service dogs can also help certain autistic people prioritize incoming sensory information by alerting their companion when, say, a doorbell rings or a timer goes off, as many autistic people have difficulty prioritizing incoming sensory information and may miss an auditory cue when the sound gets lost in the cacophony of daily life.

The head and upper torso of an amber-colored dog looking to the left of the camera. Image labeled for fair use.

Beyond sensory regulation and integration, service dogs for autistic people can also provide physical support for people who may have difficulty with balance due to motor or vestibular differences. Many autistic people also have difficulty with direction, and so service dogs can be useful for guiding their companions back to a specific location if they are lost, like the companion’s house or car.

Of course, I should mention that while there are many fantastic services that dogs can provide for an autistic companion, there are also many things that service dogs are trained to do that don’t actually provide any real service to said autistic person at all, and in this case can actually be detrimental. The biggest example of this is when autism “service” dogs are trained to “intervene” when an autistic person is stimming in order to stop them from stimming. This is a monstrously bad idea because, and I will harp on this for all eternity if I have to, stimming is beneficial and necessary for autistic people. No attempt should ever be made ever to eradicate stimming. Stimming is an important coping mechanism, regulation technique, and communication among other things that is beneficial to the autistic person in question. Intervening to stop stimming is not beneficial to autistic people, and therefore really shouldn’t be counted as a service, it’s an anti-service. Support for autistic people absolutely does not include “making autistic people appear less autistic” as this is massively harmful to the autistic person and only serves to make said person more palatable to prejudiced and sometimes outright ableist people at the expense of the autistic person’s actual wellbeing.

Of course not every autistic person needs a service dog, and in most cases a simple emotional support animal/pet will provide the necessary benefits. However, service dogs are an option for people who may need or benefit from one, albeit an expensive option at the moment. My point is that dogs can provide a number of benefits to autistic people both formally and informally as well as directly and indirectly.

The inevitable questions that will come out of an article like this are something like “should our family get a dog if we have an autistic family member?” or “should I get a dog for an autistic family member?” or “I am autistic, should I get a dog to help me stay regulated?” And the answer to any of these questions will greatly depend on the particular autistic person and even the particular dog. To begin, if there’s an autistic person in your household who is completely terrified of dogs like I was, it’s probably not a good idea to bring one home one day or try to otherwise force a dog into that person’s life. How would you feel if you were highly arachnophobic and one day someone in your house brought home a pet tarantula? (And this example is even downplaying the situation because pet tarantulas are quiet and live in little terrariums in one room of the house while dogs cannot be confined to a single room). Luckily, many autistic people including myself and most of my autistic friends who were once afraid of dogs have grown to at least tolerate dogs better, and so a family dog might be an option just a few years down the road. If an autistic family member is a bit weary of dogs or has certain sensory sensitivities but isn’t outright terrified, if a new furry friend is added to the family it’s probably better to go with a smaller, calmer, quieter dog so that said autistic person can develop more confidence around the dog.

And of course, a dog might just be the answer for an autistic person’s desires for companionship and may even provide greater regulation and accessibility benefits in addition to their trademark unconditional love for their human companions.

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