Service Dogs for Autism

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This study sought to better document and understand the changes that a trained Service Dog can bring for a person with Autism, and their family.

Why Research is Important to You

Research that documents measurable changes and meaningful social benefit can help families and professionals better evaluate their options. Repeatable results can lead to changes in how professionals and funding sources make treatment options available.


For this research, we followed Nathan to different locations in his community. Sometimes his dog, Penny, was there to help him, and sometimes she wasn’t. By recording video of Nathan and Penny, we could then count the number of times that Nathan engaged in disruptive behavior, how often he initiated communication, and the number of times he followed directions. Then, we could compare to see the effect Penny had on Nathan’s behavior.

Saints for Safety, Security and Serenity trained Saint Bernard Penny to help an autistic boy, Nathan. Here, she walks with Nathan and mom Tammy through the park.We also interviewed parents of children with Autism who used service dogs, and spent time with Nathan and his family to et a better sense of what it meant to be in the world with Nathan and Penny.


Disruptive Behavior

Without Penny, Nathan engaged in Disruptive Behavior (including trying to run away and being destructive) 13% of the time. This was an average of about 7 times in 10 minutes.

With Penny, Nathan engaged in Disruptive Behavior about 3% of the time, or 2.5 times in 10 minutes.

Initiating Communication

Without Penny, Nathan initiated communication (by pointing or speaking) 1x over 5 10-minute sessions. With Penny, Nathan initiated communication 1x over 5 10-minute sessions.


Without Penny, Nathan was compliant with an average of 23% (less than 1 in 4) of requests. With Penny, Nathan complied with 44% (about 2 of 5) requests.

In the World with Nathan and Penny

Saints for Safety, Security and Serenity trained Saint Bernard Penny to help an autistic boy, Nathan. Penny helps Nathan and mom Tammy on the slide at the park.Being in the community with Nathan and Penny could take a lot of time. There’s a lot of preparation that goes into taking a 130-lb. dog to Target. Penny sometimes slides a little on slippery floors, or gets a little tangled up with Nathan. She also has a passion for stuffed animals which Nathan’s mom, Tammy, has to be vigilant for.

Despite her size, Penny is accepted everywhere she goes. When Nathan and Penny are out and about, all eyes are on them. People say “What a beautiful dog!” or share their own stories of beloved companions. When Penny is not by Nathan’s side, others are more likely to make a wide circuit around Nathan and Tammy than to offer their help and encouragement.

Being responsible for Nathan is stressful. Knowing he could try to run into the street at any moment makes his caregivers tense. Knowing Penny is there to help Nathan stay safe lets Tammy relax a little and be available for Nathan’s sister as well.

Tammy says that Nathan’s best sentences are to ask for the key to go see Penny. He never asked to spend time with anyone before Penny.

“I think it’s safe to say that Nathan now has a playmate. I think he’s never had a playmate. He’s never had a friend. And now he does.” -Tammy


  • Decrease in Disruptive Behavior
  • Increased Compliance
  • Positive Interactions with Others
  • Feeling of safety and security
  • No change in Communication
  • An added responsibility for Mom

The results of this research are preliminary, but encouraging. We are still looking for families currently using service dogs to fill out a short survey at

More Information

Saints for Safety, Security and Serenity trained Saint Bernard Penny to help an autistic boy, Nathan. Nathan's mom, Tammy, praises Penny for anchoring.Home B.A.S.E. Behavior Consultants are located in Northern California and provide a variety of Behavior Analytic Services. They can be contacted through

Cait Conklin was the primary researcher on this project. She holds a graduate certificate in Applied Behavior Analysis and is completing a Masters program in Applied Anthropology through the University of North Texas. You can contact Cait by email.

Saints for Safety, Security and Serenity can provide a service dog to work with you and your child in public and help keep your child happy, calm and secure. Contact trainer Leslie Rappaport for more information.