Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in special education schools would likely benefit from the addition of a dog training intervention. These findings, from a controlled crossover study, were published in Autism.
Children (N=73) aged 2 years and 10 months to 7 years and 6 months with ASD were recruited from 10 special education schools in Israel. Children were assessed at 3 time-points (T1-T3) by the Social Responsiveness Scale-second edition (SRS-2), Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales (VABS), Restricted Interests and Repetitive Behavior (RIRB), and Spence Children’s Anxiety Scale (SCAS).
The children were divided in 2 groups. T1 assessments occurred at the beginning of the school year before intervention. Group 1 received dog therapy first while group 2 had multidisciplinary standard interventions. After completing the first intervention block, the children were reassessed (T2). In the last block, group assignments were swapped and the children were reassessed after completion (T3).
The trainers completed 250 classroom hours and 240 field practice hours comprising dog training, psychology, behavioral approaches, and ASD-specific characteristics. They provided two 1-on-1 weekly dog therapy sessions for 4 months. Sessions were 45 minutes during the first and last month and 20 minutes during the second and third. A mixture of small and large dogs participated in therapy sessions.
The children were majority boys (n=61) and all were White living in an area considered to have a “middle-high” socioeconomic status. The 2 groups differed by age (F, 25.46; P <.001).
There were significant time by group interaction effects observed for VABS (F[8,56], 5.89; P <.001), communication (F[2,126], 7.72; P =.001), socialization (F[2,126], 7.26; P =.001), and motor subdomain (F[2,126], 2.98; P =.05) scores.
Among group 1, a significant effect was observed for communication (F[2,64], 31.45; P <.001), socialization (F[2,64], 8.14; P =.001), and motor (F[2,64], 10.20; P <.001) scores between T1 and T2. For group 2, significant changes between T2 and T3 were observed for communication (F[2,64], 6.53; P =.003) and socialization (F[2,64], 7.83; P =.001) scores and between T1 and T3 for motor scores (F[2,64], 3.26; P =.04).
VABS socialization at T2 associated with T1 VABS socialization score (b, 0.475; P <.001), group (b, -0.421; P <.001), intelligence quotient (b, 0.214; P <.01), and T1 SR-2 RIRB (b, -0.368; P <.001). VABS communication at T2 associated with T1 VABS communication score (b, 0.68; P <.001), group (b, -0.25; P <.001), and intelligence quotient (b, 0.16; P <.05).
Discrepant findings for symptoms of anxiety were observed, in which children in group 1 had an increase in anxiety after dog therapy (P =.03) and group 2 had a decrease (P <.001).
This study was likely limited by its poor ethnic and socioeconomic diversity.
These findings suggested that children with ASD would benefit from the addition of dog therapy to traditional ASD-specific interventions, improving both socialization and communication skills.
Ben-Itzchak E, Zachor DA. Dog training intervention improves adaptive social communication skills in young children with autism spectrum disorder: A controlled crossover study. Autism. 2021;13623613211000501. doi:10.1177/13623613211000501.