Dogs Improve the Sleep Habits of Children With Autism, New Study Finds · The Wildest

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Dogs Improve the Sleep Habits of Children With Autism, New Study Finds

New research shows that service dogs help autistic kids sleep better and longer.

by Sio Hornbuckle
March 4, 2024
Sweet curly girl and jack russell dog is sleeping in night.
Yuliya Evstratenko / Shutterstock

Most dog parents can attest to the joy of having a pup curled up close by during bedtime — it’s like going to a spa, but better. Having an adorable dog by your side might feel as calming as taking a melatonin supplement, but research shows that most people sleep a tiny bit worse with a dog in the bed. They’re precious, but they’re probably kicking you awake during their squirrel-chasing dreams, too.

But that’s not true for everyone. Researchers recently found that for autistic children, living with a service dog can have serious positive effects on their own sleep habits. According to a new study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, service dogs significantly improve the sleep quality of children with autism. 

The study’s findings 

Dogs can be trained to help people with autism with a variety of things, including providing calming pressure and preventing sensory overload. The use of dogs for services related to autism has increased in recent years — according to Assistance Dog International, there are currently 73 accredited organizations that will help pair people with autism with service dogs. In the study, researchers aimed to find answers about how effective service dogs are for improving the lives of autistic children.  

The study recruited 75 families of children with autism; 39 already had a service dog, and 36 were on a waitlist for a service dog. Researchers had the caregivers fill out a survey on their child’s habits and lifestyle, as well as their own. 

Comparing the results, they found that “having a service dog was significantly associated with better child sleep behaviors, including better sleep initiation and duration and less sleep anxiety,” wrote Dr. Kerri Rodriguez , the lead author of the study. Though they were not able to determine exactly why the presence of a service dog made such a difference, they suggest that service dogs “provide a sense of security and comfort to a child with autism at night, which may translate into exhibiting less sleep anxiety and co-sleeping behavior with a caregiver.”

The study didn’t find a difference in sleep behaviors for the caregivers, but they note that this may be because the caregivers surveyed already reported few sleep disturbances — so they may not have been as sensitive to the dog’s presence as someone with difficulty sleeping. Other research has found that the caregivers of autistic children with service dogs have reported better sleep themselves, thanks to their kids’ improved habits. One participant in another study said: “The first night [the service dog] came home, [my child] slept through…I have my life back, I’ve got sleep.”

Other advantages of service dogs for autistic children

Though this study didn’t find any other impacts of service dogs on the health and habits of autistic children, other research supports the use of service dogs for a variety of benefits. One study found that horses and dogs can decrease stress and increase positive emotions; another found that service dogs decrease aggression. In interviews, caregivers have reported that dogs have interrupted or decreased tantrums, reduced feelings of isolation, and calmed autistic children.

Dr. Annie Bowes, a veterinarian who is on the autism spectrum, told The Wildest in 2022 that dogs can improve the lives of autistic and non-autistic people by providing unconditional love and acceptance. “Fortunately, acceptance isn’t something that comes with a high price tag,” she said. “In fact, it can often come with four legs and a wagging tail. Further, I can say unconditionally that anyone with a dog in their home will see each member of the family bloom with their presence, whether there is a person with autism in that family or not.”

Sio Hornbuckle

Sio Hornbuckle is a writer living in New York City with their cat, Toni Collette.

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