The 14 Best Dogs for Kids with Autism
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) includes a wide range of behaviors. Most people with an ASD diagnosis find social skills, nonverbal cues and verbal communication to be difficult or uncomfortable. Autism and forms of ASD, like Asperger Syndrome, are unique to each individual. Greta Thunberg, an environmental activist, was diagnosed with Asperger’s when she was 12 years old. Recently, on World Autism Awareness Day, she posted a message on her Instagram profile that read, “Almost everywhere there are very limited resources to give autistic people the necessary support… Under the right circumstances [autism] can truly be a gift and turn into something you—and society—can benefit from.” One resource that has gained popularity in the past few years is emotional support dogs.
How Dogs Can Benefit Kids with Autism
Now, as the Autism Society reminds us, the tools and resources that help one autistic person meet their goals may not work for another. Though the research is relatively new, several studies have shown that the bond between a dog and a person with autism can provide positive sensory experiences and boost confidence in social settings (be sure to check out the Purdue CARES study, which is ongoing and very cool).
The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders published a 2019 study in which researchers noted five themes among autistic subjects who had dedicated, reliable emotional support dogs. Those themes were “love and companionship, perception of ownership, comfort and calming influence, canine’s ability to assist the child with understanding their world, and challenging experiences.” Even having a family dog has led to decreased stress in households with at least one family member who is autistic, according to the University of Lincoln.
How to Choose the Right Dog for Your Child
Emotional support and companion dogs do not need specialized training. If a person on the ASD spectrum forms a positive bond with a dog who helps them meet their goals, great! Who cares what breed it is? But, many organizations breed and train dogs specifically to assist folks on the ASD spectrum. They’ve found some breeds are better suited for this type of bond than others. The ideal breeds are social, eager to please, affectionate and obedient. They likely have low prey drive and bark infrequently.
Dogs for Good and Paws with a Cause, two organizations dedicated to providing support and service dogs to folks with a variety of diagnoses, primarily stick to Labradors, golden tetrievers and crosses between the two for their clients. Dogs for Good also works with cockapoos, which is a crossbreed between a cocker Spaniel and a poodle.
On our list, you’ll find these breeds and a few more that meet the general guidelines listed above. These dogs enjoy play time (which can provide an opportunity for practicing motor skills and positive social interaction), have soft, cuddly fur (which can help alleviate anxiety and fear) and obey commands (which can boost communication and verbal skills).
1. LABRADOR RETRIEVER
Average Height: 23 inches
Average Weight: 67 pounds
Personality: Friendly, Social, Energetic
Labs love being around families, people and anyone willing to play fetch. As the most popular dog in America, it’s easy to see why folks gravitate to these obedient and playful animals. Having a Labrador is a great incentive to get outside and practice commands or agility training. These dogs were bred to join fishermen on fishing trips in northern Canada, so they’re pretty much up for anything the wilderness throws at them.
Average Height: 22.5 inches (Standard), 18.5 inches (Miniature), 15 inches (Toy)
Average Weight: 57 pounds (Standard), 37 pounds (Miniature), 20 pounds (Toy)
Personality: Intelligent, Dedicated, Joyful
The Labrador-poodle hybrid suits those with ASD because these pups are super friendly and super smart. Since poodles come in three sizes, it’s wise to ask for breeding information to know how big the resulting dog will be. No matter the size, Labradoodles are always up for cuddling and won’t overreact to mood swings. People with ASD may benefit more from animals with cheerful demeanors, so look no further than this affable sweetheart. They are also hypoallergenic and don’t shed.
3. MINIATURE AMERICAN SHEPHERD
Average Height: 15.5 inches
Average Weight: 30 pounds
Personality: Smart, Loyal, Friendly
Pups like the miniature American shepherd know how to learn commands, follow orders and are eager to please their owners. Predictable, daily routines provide structure to lots of kids and adults with ASD, so trainability is imperative. These dogs are also known to be great with kiddos—in part because they love getting exercise and in part because they easily adapt to their family’s routine.
4. Golden Retriever
Average Height: 22 inches
Average Weight: 65 pounds
Personality: Obedient, Loving, Intelligent
Try walking down the street with a friendly golden retriever and not making a new pal. This breed is a terrific companion for social settings because they’re loyal and playful. Dogs for folks with ASD also often need to be able to withstand a little rough-housing—or at the very least, tons of playtime—and goldens are always up for anything.
5. GOLDEN DOODLE
Average Height: 22 inches (Standard), 18.5 inches (Miniature), 16.5 inches (Toy)
Average Weight: 70 pounds (Standard), 45 pounds (Miniature), 25 pounds (Toy)
Personality: Playful, Smart, Friendly
Similar to the Labradoodle, the goldendoodle is a playful companion who enjoys being around people and other animals. A mix between a golden retriever and a poodle, these dogs are incredibly smart and know how to be extremely gentle in tough situations. Rather than reacting with barks or bolting away, these dogs stay cool in a crisis when trained to do so.
6. COCKER SPANIEL
Average Height: 14.5 inches
Average Weight: 25 pounds
Personality: Sweet, Happy, Obedient
Though cocker Spaniels are on the slightly smaller side, they bring big personality and an abundance of joy to the lives of their humans. These dedicated pups are always willing to meet new people but know when it’s time to remain calm and provide support. They do very well with children. Brushing their luxurious coats once a day to keep the cocker Spaniel coat looking its best could be an excellent bonding activity for someone with ASD.
Average Height: 15 inches (Standard), 12 inches (Miniature), 10 inches (Toy)
Average Weight: 20 pounds (Standard), 15.5 pounds (Miniature), 10 pounds (Toy)
Personality: Alert, Friendly, Easy-Going
When you combine a poodle with a cocker Spaniel, the result is a cockapoo. One of the friendliest breeds out there, cockapoo families insist their dogs are incredibly good at knowing when their people are feeling sad. In fact, they’ve been known to save lives! These are great dogs for folks who live in apartments, too.
8. Saint Bernard
Average Height: 28 inches
Average Weight: 140 pounds
Personality: Playful, Patient
The Saint Bernard is tremendously sturdy and an excellent canine to lean on when needed. They train well, are great with people of all ages and don’t bark a ton (according to the American Kennel Club). Barking can be startling, and many with ASD also experience noise sensitivity, so a pup on the quieter side is ideal.
Average Height: 27 inches
Average Weight: 125 pounds
Personality: Patient, Sweet, Obedient
These dogs are incredibly patient and devoted to their owners. Obedience comes easily, and these gentle giants only bark when necessary. Newfoundlands (and all the dogs on our list) also interact well with other dogs. It can be upsetting when a casual walk turns into a growling match between pooches. Avoid this by choosing a breed that plays well with others.
10. Maltese Poodle
Average Height: 11 inches
Average Weight: 12 pounds
Personality: Affectionate, Energetic, Smart
Big dogs are excellent for those with ASD, but tiny dogs also get the job done. Enter the Maltese poodle (often called a Maltipoo). A combination of the intelligent poodle and the fluffy, good-natured Maltese, this pooch is a great option for anyone with limited space or in need of an extra affectionate animal. The only drawback could be their tendency to be vocal—training them early to withhold barking is essential.
11. GREAT PYRENEES
Average Height: 28.5 inches
Average Weight: 95 pounds
Personality: Calm, Loyal
Also known as a giant, mellow guardian, the Great Pyrenees can be very much suited for kids with ASD. Puppy training early is key, as they tend to be a little on the independent side. But as long as they understand sit, stay and chill, they’ll serve and protect unflinchingly. We’re not mad about that puffy white coat, either!
12. American Staffordshire Terrier
Average Height: 18 inches
Average Weight: 55 pounds
Personality: Energetic, Outgoing, Devoted
Talk about a sturdy dog. American Staffordshire terriers are built like a rock, yet they’re huge softies at heart. They love their families and are loyal through and through. Another highly trainable breed, this dog could be a huge confidence builder for anyone entering a new social setting. Train firmly and early to ensure commands stick for the long haul.
Average Height: 21 inches
Average Weight: 50 pounds
Personality: Calm, Independent, Obedient
Train these ever-smiling dogs early and firmly, and you’ll have a four-legged pal that’s highly obedient and can retain commands—and is super cute and cuddly to boot. Bred in the arctic by the Samoyedic people of Siberia, living with humans is their favorite place to be, which makes them wonderful companion dogs for anyone—including kids and adults with autism.
14. CAVALIER KING CHARLES SPANIEL
Average Height: 12.5 inches
Average Weight: 15.5 pounds
Personality: Adaptable, Low Maintenance, Sociable
Routine can be important for kids with autism, and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are happy—and ready—to match whatever their beloved human is doing with their adaptable, friendly energy. Since they’re typically non-aggressive with people or with other dogs (low-prey drive FTW), these sweet pups’ sensibility is a natural match for children with sensory sensitivities.
Want to help out the autism community and adorable hero dogs at the same time? Consider sponsoring a dog through Dogs for Good, donating to Paws with a Cause or volunteering with Canine Companions for Independence.