On more than one occasion, people have asked me if my dog is autistic. Charlotte, a former street dog, has behavioral special needs, and I’ve lost track of how many people have asked upon meeting her, “Is she ever going to be normal?”
I like to use these moments as chances to open up conversation about neurodiversity in dogs: some experience trauma and anxiety and need behavioral management, and not all dogs process trauma the same way. My dog Charlotte has come a long way. She has psychiatric medications that help her with some of her largest triggers, daily training, and behavioral management that all work to give her an enriching, high-quality life.
Though Charlotte’s behavioral challenges are probably due to her growing up on the streets, these conversations always get me thinking, “can dogs be autistic?” The expert opinion is…maybe.
Does Autism Exist in Dogs?
Dr. Valli Parthasarathy, PhD, DVM, ACVB Resident and co-founder of Synergy Behavior Solutions in Portland, Oregon,explains that at this time autism is not a behavioral condition recognized in dogs. This is in part because there has not yet been enough research into the typical and atypical behavior in dogs for that kind of diagnosis to be given.
Dr. Parthasarathy went on to explain that in the future this may change, and there is a possibility we could see diagnoses of autism in dogs. “As we are learning more about the complexities of canine neurology, behavior and neurodiversity, the more information there is to help dogs. As we learn more, we may be able to start more finely characterizing different behavioral disorders. We may find that autism is a condition in dogs as it is in people.”
Research on Autism in Dogs
Although autism is not at this time something dogs can receive a diagnosis for, there is research being done into autism-like behaviors in dogs.
Dr. Parthasarathy explains, “According to the Mayo Clinic website, children with autism have two key characteristics: difficulty with social interactions and communication, and repetitive behaviors.”
Studies have observed comparable behavior in dogs. “For example, recently Tufts Veterinary Behaviorist Nick Dodman presented a study in which he assessed the behavior of 132 English Bull Terriers and found patterns of repetitive behavior (tail chasing), trancelike behavior, and episodic aggression similar to what can be seen in autistic children,” continues Dr. Parthasarathy.
Is Your Dog Autistic?
If you have wondered if your dog might be autistic, you aren’t alone. A variety of behavioral challenges exhibited by dogs may be interpreted by their guardians as a form of autism. Dr. Parthasarathy explains, “When my clients ask me about whether their dogs are autistic, they are often referring to dogs that are not responsive to doing what they ask, and dogs that appear to become overstimulated in new environments, are performing repetitive behaviors or may be aggressive.”
A medical condition is always a possible underlier when dogs experience severe behavioral issues like aggression or obsessive licking. Canine compulsive disorder is another possible explanation for your dog’s challenges. At one time, dogs who exhibited repetitive, compulsive habits were thought to have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), but experts in the animal behavior community have since identified the condition in dogs to be distinctly separate from that found in people.
Again, autism is not yet a diagnosis that can be given to dogs. Autism-like symptoms such as repetitive behavior or episodic aggression can be very challenging for dog guardians to understand and safely manage in the home, and it may be tempting to put the autism label on a dog if it fits. But Dr. Parthasarathy explains that a detailed history of the dog is essential for professionals to come up with a diagnosis. “Many of my patients who present to me with these signs have underlying generalized anxiety that needs to be addressed,” she says.
Dogs who have anxiety disorders may exhibit symptoms that their owners interpret as autism and diagnose themselves. But in reality, “anxiety in general can affect a dog’s ability to learn, problem-solve, retain and recall information,” describes Dr. Parthasarathy.
What to Do if Your Dog Shows Signs of Autism
If you think that your dog might be autistic, or if your dog is displaying behaviors that seem to be the result of an autism-like condition, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with your primary care veterinarian. Dr. Parthasarathy explains that many conditions related to orthopedic, neurologic, gastrointestinal and dermatological issues can result in dogs being unresponsive to cues, or exhibiting trance-like, excessive sensitivity or repetitive behaviors.
If your veterinarian rules out any physical conditions, they may refer you to a veterinary behavior diplomate or resident for diagnosis and treatment. “Treatment for these behavioral conditions can be complex and may involve the use of behavioral medications as well as a comprehensive management and behavior modification plan,” explains Dr. Parthasarathy.
There are fewer than 100 behavioral diplomats or residents in the United States, so this isn’t an option available to all dog owners depending on where you live. Many canine behavior experts are able and willing to consult with primary proactive veterinarians to support individual patients, however.
Dr. Parthasarathy also advised it’s a good idea to begin working with a positive reinforcement, reward-based trainer. Find a trainer who has experience working with dogs who have behavioral concerns; a good trainer should be part of the treatment team for any dog who may be exhibiting autism-like behaviors. Correcting or punishing unwanted behaviors in dogs with severe behavioral problems can actually make the problem worse or cause other new problem behaviors to arise.
There aren’t any fast answers for working with dogs who have what might be considered autism-like behaviors. Dr. Parthasarathy cautions that, “dogs with behavioral disorders are not trying to be ‘stubborn’, ‘dominant’, or trying to ‘get away’ with things. People who live with these dogs are generally doing the best that they can. Having compassion for dogs with problem behavior, as well as their people, is an important step towards helping them.”
If you think your dog might be autistic, the most important thing is to love your dog, and commit to finding professional support to meet your dog where they are at this stage in their development. Be gentle with your dog and yourself. Just like we are getting better at accepting neurodiversity in people, I hope that as a society we will grow to understand that not all dogs experience and react to the world in the same ways.
Sassafras Lowreyis an award-winning author and Certified Trick Dog Instructor. Sassafras’ forthcoming books include: Tricks IN THE CITY: For Daring Dogs and the Humans That Love Them, Healing/Heeling, and Bedtime Stories for Rescue Dogs: William To The Rescue. Learn more at www.SassafrasLowrey.com.