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This guest post is by Brett Endes who is known as “The Dog Savant” and uses his gift of autism to help owners understand and connect with their dogs in a unique and meaningful way. Brett has 23 years experience as a Los Angeles dog trainer and has worked with thousands of dogs and their owners, specializing in solving the most severe problem behaviors in canines.
For as long as I can remember, I always felt most comfortable around dogs. I was considered “different” as a child and struggled with both school and my initial career choices because of my anxiety, social difficulties and limited interests.
To avoid relying on assistance to survive, I decided to create a career working with dogs by starting a dog walking service 25 years ago. Having dogs constantly at my side while working helped me cope with the anxiety associated with the “human only” interactions. In fact, I am now able to connect with people from every walk of life through their dogs!
Once I was diagnosed with autism as an adult, I finally realized why I had conveniently chosen “a dog’s life” as a professional dog trainer. It also explained why I saw subtle patterns in dogs (and their owners) no other dog trainer could see. I approached canine behavioral problems from a sensory-based perspective instead of the standard “positive/negative” approach, which did not always seem to communicate with a dog from his perspective. It always felt like my experience in life was closer to a dog’s than to that of other humans.
Being on the spectrum allows me to use my gift to connect with dogs and their owners, and I wanted to share my top 5 reasons that dogs make great companions for people with autism.
1) Dogs Live in a Sensory-Based World, Too
Dogs navigate their surroundings and social interactions in an unfiltered, sensory-based way and are constantly making pattern-based associations (saving them for later use), just like adults and children on the autism spectrum do. This is actually the most difficult concept for most dog owners (and unfortunately, many dog trainers) to grasp, which can lead to a misunderstanding in how to communicate and train their dog to be happy and problem-free.
This is specifically what I have become skilled in teaching my Los Angeles dog-training clients, while sharing insight into the experiences of those on the autism spectrum. I really like to educate people as an high-functioning autistic adult, since I have experienced similar misunderstandings in social interactions and can very much relate to the frustrating sensory overload dogs can experience without the proper tools or understanding people to help them.
2) Dogs are Consistent and Follow Rules
Dogs exist in a way that does not have as many confusing social formalities as the human world does. If you stick to their rules, then their response is consistent. There is no deviation from this, which can be a great relief to someone on the spectrum who can struggle to adjust to different social situations, personalities and cues. Dogs are consistent animals and once understood, it is easy to know their next move. I am most at peace when working with my canine clients and interacting with my own dogs since I am immersed in their world and not the human world, which at times can be confusing and overstimulating.
3) Dogs Do Not Judge
Dogs do not judge or react to someone who is different. They are always happy to be loved, owned and trained by anyone who provides them with the consistent guidance and care they need. Having a dog can also help people with autism who struggle socially since studies have shown that dogs lower stress levels and invite positive social interactions to help “bridge the gap” for someone who has difficulty navigating the world on their own.
4) Service Dogs
Dogs make wonderful autism-assistance and service animals. They are loyal, hard-working companions for both children and adults on the autism spectrum. An autism service dog can help with many tasks, act as a consistent friend, help with social interactions and relationships, improve verbal and non-verbal communication, and foster new interests. In some instances, service dogs have prevented children from wandering or becoming lost. My daughter and I each have service dogs of our own. As a professional dog trainer, it has been very rewarding to connect with dogs and families to help bring meaning to their lives.
5) Dogs are Dogs!
Of course, I may be slightly biased since dogs have always been my special interest since I was a child, and it developed into a lifelong career. However, it is hard to deny the joy and amazement of dog ownership no matter who you are. A 2015 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found that children who owned dogs had nearly half the levels of anxiety as those who lived in homes without dogs. Researchers concluded, “Pet dogs could reduce childhood anxiety, particularly social and separation anxiety by various mechanisms.” For adults and children with autism, dogs can provide the calming companionship that can help us thrive in many social situations. No other animal species shares the same natural habitat with humans in such an integral and meaningful way. I’ll take a dog’s life!