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Frequently asked questions: Autism Service Dogs

Who can benefit from an autism service dog?

Autism service dogs are trained for families with a child suffering from ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). The dog is handed over when the child is between 3 and 10 years old and lives at home with the family.

Children who like to be out and about but find it difficult to accept the dangers posed by traffic and have to be constantly restrained by their parents can best benefit from the companionship of a dog of this nature. Families who have taken a step back from public life in order to save their child from constant overload will appreciate having an autism service dog as a permanent companion.

With a dog at their side, many children find it easier to communicate and may even actively seek contact with the people around them.

What are the preconditions for receiving an autism service dog?

  • Families must live in Switzerland. Because of lack of capacity, it is not possible for us to place autism service dogs abroad at the moment.
  • Autism spectrum disorder must be diagnosed in the affected children by a doctor and these children must be able to walk unrestrained beside the dog.
  • The child's legal guardians are not in full-time employment and thus have sufficient time and energy to look after the interests of the dog.
  • The affected child must live at home with the family.

Can an autism service dog be taken everywhere?

Autism service dogs enjoy the same rights as guide dogs for the blind and other assistance dogs.

When the dog in the harness is led by a trained dog owner (this is always an adult, e.g. the mother of the child) and accompanies a child with ASD, this is considered to be a complete working team, and the dog may accompany the team even in places where a dog is normally denied access.

What are the advantages of an autism service dog?

Autism service dogs assist a child with ASD to experience road traffic and activities that are not routine without feeling threatened or put under pressure. In the medium term, children who are normally driven to lessons or kindergarten by car or school bus are able to take advantage of the autism service dog to walk to their destination. If the route is serviced by public transport, this option should also be considered.

What does an autism service dog learn?

The autism service dog learns how to respond to roughly 25 vocal commands given by the dog owner (always an adult) which provide clear instructions to the animal in different situations. The dog also learns situation-relevant behaviour such as stopping on its own (and resisting further movement) before crossing the road, refusing to take a different route should the child attempt it, and behaving responsibly towards the child, other people and animals.

How long does it take to train an autism service dog?

As a rule, training lasts approx. six months.

Are there other training institutions in Switzerland?

The Foundation Swiss School for Guide Dogs for the Blind was the first Swiss institution to commence training autism service dogs, in 2012.

What is autism?

Autism is a profound developmental disorder. Because of complex disturbances to the central nervous system (in particular perceptive faculties), people with autism see themselves and the world in a different light. They mainly have difficulty in recognising the consequences and rules with regard to communication and social behaviour. They often find the world in which they live difficult to comprehend, overwhelming and frightening.

What is the procedure if a person is interested in an autism service dog?

If a family indicates its interest, an information pack is provided as a first step. Following a telephone discussion with the instructor, the family receives an application form. Having returned the completed application form, the entire family visits the school in Allschwil. The next step is to clarify the situation within the local environment. If the application is approved, the family will be provided with a suitable dog as quickly as possible.

What happens to the autism service dog when the child has reached the age of 10?

Autism service dogs that have already been given to a family will continue to work with that family even after the child has reached the age of 10. Experience has shown that once a team has bonded, any potential physical dominance on the part of the child towards his autism service dog is not an important issue.

What happens to an autism service dog when it becomes old?

When an autism service dog is retired after a period of serving as a companion, it is expected that the dog will spend its remaining years with the family as a trusted family dog.

How much does an autism service dog cost?

The total cost of an autism service dog is around CHF 48'000. Families with autistic children receive their autism service dog free of charge. The costs are borne by the foundation. The cost of keeping an autism service dog is borne by the families from the time the dogs are handed over to them. However, out-of-the-ordinary veterinary expenses will continue to be paid by the foundation, as before.

How quickly is it noticeable if a dog is not suitable for training?

This is very individual. A period of weeks or even months can pass before a decision is taken, depending upon the dog, problem or difficulty that can lead to a dog being deemed unsuitable.

Which breeds are most suitable for training as autism service dogs?

In principle, a number of breeds are suitable. The important factor is that it is a medium-sized breed which has pleasure in undertaking work of this nature.

The school in Allschwil breeds its own Labrador Retrievers. These are suitable for a number of tasks, of which one is as an autism service dog. The Labrador is robust and easy to look after. Apart from gaining pleasure from its work, it is also independent, friendly to people and members of its own species and very adaptable.

Is a male or a female dog more suitable?

As far as training is concerned, there is no difference between a male dog and a female. The differences are more to do with the individual dogs, and have nothing to do its gender.

Do the dogs in the school often have to be left alone?

We try to ensure that the dogs are left alone as little as possible and are kept busy. The dog is a pack animal and needs contact with its fellow species and with people. The dogs are always housed in pairs in a kennel. If instructors are absent and unable to work with their dogs, the dogs are looked after individually and kept busy by a dog carer.

How long is a daily training session?

Depending upon the level of training the dog has reached, it may last from a few minutes up to one hour at a time every day. During training, the instructors look closely at the emotional constitution of the dog, and tailor the training lessons accordingly to a certain extent.

What are the main reasons for a dog to drop out?

There are many reasons for a dog to be deemed unsuitable for training. Health issues, inability to cope with pressure, failure to enjoy the work and visual or acoustic deficiencies are the most frequent causes.

Why are the voice commands given in Italian?

The Italian language is particularly suitable because vowels appear a lot more often than in German. This makes it easier for the dog to differentiate between the different vocal commands.

How does one become an autism service dog instructor?

By completing a three year apprenticeship at the school.

What are the preconditions for learning to be an instructor?

  • Good health and a robust physical constitution
  • Social commitment and a love and understanding of the nature of the animal
  • Openness and friendliness, a capacity for team work and independence
  • A capacity for enthusiasm, persistence and a sense of responsibility
  • Languages: German and French
  • Physical endurance and perseverance
  • Sound school and general education; good manners
  • A completed apprenticeship or equivalent training plus several years’ practical experience.
  • Age: 22-35 years
  • Driving licence for cat. B motor vehicles

Does an instructor train more than one dog at a time?

As a rule, an instructor works with 3 dogs. Instructors work individually with the dogs and adapt the lesson time to the needs and training level of each dog.