One Purdue research study is sending kids diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder home with dogs in hopes to discover how they affect their day-to-day lives.

“From what people tell us, it seems like they think that their child is able to be more comfortable in social settings (because of the dogs),” said Maggie O’Haire, a project coordinator and associate professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine.

The Purdue Canines for Autism Research Study, a two-year Purdue study that launched last fall, will follow how service dogs impact not only children with ASD but their families as well.

“This is definitely one of the first studies looking at the specific effects that autism service dogs are going to have on not only the kids functioning, but on the family, as well,” said Kerri Rodriguez, a doctoral student with eight years of service dog research and another project coordinator.

The research looks at how the service dog affects the child’s autism symptomatology by analyzing how exposure to the service dog alters the child’s saliva, which contains the stress hormone cortisol.

“Our long-term research goal is to evaluate the applicability of the human-animal bond as a complementary treatment for improving the well-being of special populations, including children with ASD and their families,” according to the research team’s press release. “The specific goal of this project is to quantify the therapeutic effects of service dogs on children with ASD and their caregivers.”

Research is conducted in two ways. Subjectively, the parent completes a survey on how their child is reacting. Objectively, the child fills a saliva sample twice per day. Each saliva sample is then shipped overnight to the research lab.

Through the study’s partnership with the Purdue Autism Research Center, the research team has been able to make collection of data easy for the autistic participants with a series of easy-to-follow steps and colorful charts resulting in an earned reward.

“Essentially, these are the type of things that we do to cater our saliva collection to this population,” Rodgriguez said. “A lot of (participants) might not like the feeling of the swab in their mouth, they might be aversive. They may have texture problems. It’s hard for even a typically-developing 7-year-old to tolerate a swab in their mouth for three minutes.”

Funding for the project comes primarily from the Human Animal Bond Research Institute.

Canine Companions for Independence provides purpose-bred golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers and golden-lab hybrids at no cost to their future families. The dogs are trained in over 30 commands, including ASD-specific tasks such as interrupting self-stimulatory behavior and providing deep pressure calmness.

Ultimately, the goal is to improve the lives of those affected by ASD and their families.

“We hope that we will have initial advocacy data on how these dogs are helping children and their families,” Rodriguez said.

According to the research team, the project is set to be completed by fall 2021.

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