Autism is defined in humans as a disorder of the nervous system that features symptoms like difficulty being in social situations, understanding social cues, and behaviors, exhibiting obsessive interests, and repetitive behaviors. Dogs can exhibit similar symptoms and veterinarians call this disorder “canine dysfunctional behavior”. Sadly, we don’t have a very good understanding of the condition in dogs and veterinarians are not sure what is causing the canine dysfunctional behavior. The empirical experience shows that the condition in dogs is present from birth.
Is Autism Affecting Dogs Similarly to Humans
Studies show that canines affected by autism lack mirror neurons that their brain needs to mimic the behavior of older dogs and help the dog fit in social structures. Many veterinarians believe that dogs with canine dysfunctional behavior experience the world very similar to their human counterparts with autism. A research published on the Translational Psychiatry platform has linked elevated serum neurotensin and CRH (corticotrophin releasing hormone) levels in children with autism to tail-chasing Bull Terriers who exhibit similar behavior (obsession with objects, repetitive behavior, increased aggression, and a post-aggressive phase characterized by lethargy and lack of responsiveness).
We have very little information about canine dysfunctional behavior and putting a diagnosis on a dog is very difficult. The veterinarian society agrees that most canines affected by Autism show difficulties in socializing, they can be aggressive towards animals and people, very territorial, and exhibit obsessive behaviors like tail-chasing and mouthing. These problems always appear during the puppyhood phase and the canine dysfunctional behavior is not affected by vaccines or environmental factors.
1. Anti-social behavior — most dogs that have canine dysfunctional behavior will stray away from other animals and will not seek to interact with them.
2. Lack of focus — the dog does not pay attention to you when you are outside and when you are walking them on a leash.
3. Obsessive-compulsive behaviors — this can include circling a room for long periods of time, chronic tail-chasing, obsessive teeth grinding, mouthing objects for a long time. Others pile up their toys in one place.
4. Poor reaction to stimuli — some dogs may bark, nip or yelp when they are touched. Others may not like people to touch their head and back and might respond with a reaction of pain, aggression, or fear.
5. Sensitivity to sounds — some dogs with autism are very sensitive to sounds. Unfamiliar sounds, surprising sounds, and loud sounds can put them in a state of fear and the dogs are very likely to retreat to a location they find safe which can be the space under your bed, a closet, or a hidden corner of a room.
6. Lethargy — many dogs with Autism act tired, prefer to lay down in a corner of your home and lack the motivation to interact with other animals and humans. This can be very worrying if you own a high-energy breed of dog.
The dogs with the canine version of Autism responded very similarly to the same medications used on people like serotonin-reuptake inhibitors (for example — Prozac) and anticonvulsant therapies. Many affected dogs also showed significant skin issues and gastrointestinal problems were often reported. Please, note that the study mentioned above only included Bull Terriers and other breeds are likely to feature different behaviors.
If your dog has canine dysfunctional behavior and is not responding too well to your training, it does not mean you are a bad trainer or owner. You just need to adapt to your dog’s needs and nature. It is best to talk to your veterinarian to identify what may be causing severe reactions in your dog. Try to remove these triggers or minimize exposure to situations that your dog does not handle well. Dogs with anxiety react very well when they are wrapped in a blanket and hugged firmly. Others can be outfitted with a vest with soft weights to simulate physical contact and make the dog feel protected. It is best to choose a route that has fewer people and animals when you take your dog out for a walk so you reduce the stress for your dog.
Diagnosis of any canine problems should be performed by a licensed veterinarian. Veterinarians can take the steps to rule out other medical conditions before investigating potential autism. Sadly, there is no standardized treatment for dogs with autism and your veterinarian may prescribe medication that can provide relief for compulsive behaviors and suppress some symptoms.
You might think your dog is afraid of everything when you care for a dog with autism. You can help your paw partner be calmer by providing a safe space for them to rest. This can be done by setting up a comfortable bed with sturdy but soft sides and placing it in a corner of your home that is usually quiet. Don’t pet your dog too much as some prefer to have minimal interaction with humans and other animals. Visiting a dog park is not recommended either. Regular exercise is a great way for you to keep your paw friend away from compulsive behavior, improve your bond and keep them busy. If you can, work with a trainer who has experience helping dogs with behavioral issues so you can learn more on how to best live with your dog and make them feel loved.