Yet Another Reason to Love Dogs

Research reveals how therapy dogs might help kids with autism and Down syndrome.

Posted Feb 11, 2020

About a month ago I (somewhat) unexpectedly got a puppy and, when she’s not running around and wreaking havoc on my apartment, she is an incredible source of joy. 

Dogs are known for the positivity they bring to people’s lives, and research has generally shown that they decrease owners’ anxiety and stress. I was already on a serious dog kick, so I began looking into more recent studies on how dogs affect us humans, and I came across some interesting work by a team in the Netherlands who focused on the impact of dog-assisted therapy (DAT) for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and Down syndrome (DS)—genetic disorders that affect cognitive and social-emotional development. 

First: a little background on ASD and DS, and why dogs might be helpful.

In 2018, the CDC reported that about 1 in 59 children is diagnosed with ASD and that boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls. About 30% of children with ASD are considered intellectually disabled, meaning their IQ is less than 70, and 25% are in the “borderline range,” with an IQ between 71 and 85. In addition, children with ASD are more likely to have attention deficit disorder (ADHD), anxiety and gastrointestinal disorders, chronic sleep problems, epilepsy, and schizophrenia

Down syndrome is the most common genetic disorder, caused by an extra copy of chromosome 21 (hence its other name, “trisomy 21”). Mild to moderate intellectual disability is also common in people with DS. Brain-imaging studies have shown that adults with Down syndrome have a smaller frontal lobe—the part of the brain responsible for emotional control and a wide range of cognitive skills that include problem solving, memory, and language. Studies have also indicated a smaller cerebellum in people with Down syndrome. Normal functioning of our cerebellum is required for motor skills like balance and coordination. Children with Down syndrome are also at a higher risk for a range of health problems, including heart defects, cataracts, hearing loss, and an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease in adulthood. 

Although there are many differences in the behaviors of children with ASD and DS, some similarities lie in how they socialize—specifically with impaired behavioral synchrony. Behavioral synchrony is a big part of being human—you keep in time with other humans. For instance, you use certain gestures or postures to indicate that you’re engaged in an interaction and that you're picking up on the other person's mental state.

The take-home message with behavioral synchrony is that it's incredibly important for a child’s development—and for kids who struggle with behavioral synchrony, dogs might help move it along. Past studies showed that dog-assisted therapy (DAT)—where therapy dogs and their trainers work with children one-on-one or in a small group setting—helped increase social behavior in children with ASD. The children began to initiate contact with their therapist more and were able to maintain focus for longer periods of time. They also showed an improvement in self-esteem. Children with DS also showed improved communication and focus, and they were calmer.  

Norman Bosworth/Pixabay
Source: Norman Bosworth/Pixabay

Some of those past studies hypothesized that this improved communication and focus came from therapy dogs helping children with ASD and DS establish synchronous movement patterns (i.e. improve their behavioral synchrony). 

The research team in the Netherlands wanted to see if that was actually the case. 

Ten children took part in the study—5 with ASD (1 girl, 4 boys with an average age of 12) and 5 with DS (1 girl, 4 boys with an average age of 14). They attended 6 weekly sessions, 30 minutes each. During the first part of each session (all under therapist supervision), a child would lead the dog they were paired with through simple exercises or repetitive tasks. During the second part, the child was asked to build an obstacle course and then lead the dog through it while giving commands like “sit” or “jump” (over a bar placed on the course). The child was told, by the therapist, to take the lead and to give the dog clear instructions throughout the obstacle course. An additional obstacle was added to the course each session, and the children were always given the freedom to suggest new obstacles or tasks for the dogs to do.

The authors used cross-recurrence quantification analysis (CRQA) to determine synchrony between a child and their therapy dog over the course of the six sessions. CRQA allowed them to match child and dog movement in real-time, as well as across an interval of 30 seconds (to accommodate for delayed responses predicted for children with ASD and DS). 

In the end, 9 out of 10 children showed a significantly higher proportion of synchrony in the last therapy session compared to the first one, making this the first study to show an increase in synchrony through DAT. On average, the five children with ASD showed more synchrony with their dogs compared to the children with DS and showed a decrease in what’s categorized as “problem behavior” after the DAT sessions, but neither of those findings was statistically significant. This was a small study—even the authors cite the importance of having a larger sample size to make the findings more generalizable and (hopefully) compelling. Ideally, they would also have had more than six DAT sessions, to determine the minimum number of sessions that would yield the best results.  

Alex G. Ramos/Pixabay
Source: Alex G. Ramos/Pixabay

At the end of the day, this work provides interesting preliminary evidence that behavioral synchrony could be a key mechanism underlying the effectiveness of DAT for children with ASD and DS, and it adds to the ongoing conversation about varying, individually-tailored forms of therapy for these children.