Written by guest blogger Kerry Rhodes from Rhodes 2 Safety

CANINE AUTISM – is it a real thing? Am I making it up? Have I lost the plot?

Autism in humans is something I’m sure you’ve heard of .  It’s something we are starting to understand more and more these days, thank goodness, but what exactly is it?

Autism is a spectrum disorder (meaning that it has a wide variety of symptoms) that effects the person for all of their life.  There is no cure – just coping strategies and methods to help manage the condition.  In a nutshell, it affects the individual’s ability to understand and communicate with the world around them, be that people, animals, sounds, movement, new, familiar or different situations. 

As with anything, everybody is unique and it’s certainly not a case of “one size fits all” so we find that different people react differently and have an array of sensitivities or triggers.

Canine Autism

So is it just humans that suffer with this condition? 

While the science is as yet unproven, there is a building acceptance that other animals can experience it too from Mice to Apes and really when you think about it, why is this surprising?  We ourselves are, after all, merely another species of animal. 

When I mention Canine Autism to people initially, their first reaction is usually to laugh and assume I’m kidding.  I’m not.  And when you begin to see the signs and symptoms mirrored in your own dog, you do start to question the various behaviours they are exhibiting as possibly not just “naughty” but perhaps a learning difficulty of sorts.

Autistic Dogs

Dogs learn very early on in their little lives – we tend to say the key initial “learning window” is between about 8-16 weeks of age.  At this stage your puppy is like a sponge; learning new things every minute of the day and familiarising himself with people, places, noises, activities etc all the time (be that a washing machine, a TV, a knock at the door, noisy shopping trollies at the supermarket etc etc). 

To socialise your dog and introduce him to lots of new challenges early on can make such a difference in his mental development and his ability to cope in later life.  If dogs are NOT introduced to such stimuli in this early stage of development, it can very often result in a fearful, timid, aggressive or reactive dog.  Often, we may assign a dog’s “naughty” behaviour to a lack of socialisation and while it MAY indeed be the case, sometimes, there is a little more to it – your dog could actually be suffering with Canine Autism.

What is Canine Autism?

What is Canine Autism?

There is lots of talk and conjecture about just what causes autism (both human and canine autism for that matter) and the jury is out as to whether it is genetic, causal (linked to things such as vaccination), autoimmune problems or even environmental factors.

As I say, each dog is different but symptoms can be things such as being over or under reactive to sounds.  Perhaps the slightest bang sets your dog off, puts him on edge or, conversely, perhaps he actively seems to ignore sounds seeking the safety of turning a blind eye to them rather than facing whatever they denote?

Maybe he appears overly aggressive or pushy when playing – I’ve heard it described as like having no “off switch” and not understanding where the boundaries of play end and those of aggression and violence begin, with a desire to WIN at all costs.

Diagnosing Canine Autism

Sometimes, it’s the movement of the dog that can give the first clue that there may be problems.  Are they clumsy, tripping or slipping more than you would expect?  Do they seem uncoordinated in their movement with a seeming disconnection between the activities of their front half and their back end?

Do they struggle with touch, eye contact or closeness with people or other animals?  Often they may seem at ease with a person or situation and then suddenly get a look in their eye that tells you they are not coping, are unsure of what is going on and then freak out to get away from the situation, seemingly for absolutely no reason at all.

You may find they are very reactive and then suddenly the moment has passed and they are not at all reacting to the situation, a little like they’ve forgotten what they were worried about.  This can be very confusing for them and for us.  One minute they are perfectly happy with a new dog or playmate but the next time they meet, they can have a completely different reaction to the self and same dog.

Also, as yet unproven, there appears to be a possible link between those dogs who exhibit signs of Canine Autism and those who develop epilepsy – the incidence of the link does appear to be quite high.  Some Canine Autism sufferers report an incidence of gastro-intestinal problems too, especially “leaky gut” syndrome.

Autism in Dogs

So, are there any upsides?

Well, it can be a double-edged sword.  Many people report that their special C.A. (Canine Autism) dogs are super clever, being able to learn and carry out tasks after being shown just a few times when “normal” dogs would need much longer.  This quick ability to learn and take things in is quite a talent but it is also worth noting that the short term memory for other things can be quite debilitated too. 

For example, a new person comes to the house and you carefully introduce them to your dog until he seems happy enough with the situation.  The person is in your home for say, an hour, mixing and talking to your C.A. dog and then pops to use the toilet, leaving the room and going out of sight.  Two minutes later when he returns, your dog may well have absolutely no recollection of who the person is or that he has, in fact, ever even met him, resulting in you having to reintroduce them all over again.

All the above is just an overview. As you’d imagine, it’s a very complicated and involved subject but something worth bearing in mind if you have seen these type of behaviours demonstrated by your dog.

Autism in Canines

Below is a “Diagnostic Tool” you might wish to have a look at, compiled by Petra Dance, to give you an idea of the sort of behaviours we are looking at.

Impaired social interaction / non-verbal marker

  • Poor eye contact, or staring from unusual angle
  • In his/her own world (aloof)
  • Inappropriate/unusual aggression
  • Doesn’t like to be touched or held (body, head)
  • Hates interacting with unknown dogs
  • Abnormal joy expression when seeing owners
  • Lack of ability to imitate other dogs
  • Just doesn’t get it

Qualitative impaired / misplaced communication           

  • Produces unusual noises or infantile squeals
  • Inappropriate vocalisation
  • Obsessive, compulsive and/or ritualistic vocalisation (without it being a training/breed issue)

Stereotyped / patterned behaviour       

  • Ritualistic behaviour
  • Repetitive behaviour
  • Arranging toys
  • Obsessive behaviour (dog seems unable to stop behaviour e.g. catching shadows)
  • Compulsive behaviour (dog gets relief from behaviour e.g. licking/pacing during thunderstorm/fireworks)
  • Must have routine
  • Cannot switch from one task to another (e.g. playing to eating)
  • Prolonged rocking, licking or staring (often at nothing)

Cognitive / emotional impairment                         

  • Facial expressions don’t fit situations
  • Ignores when called, pervasive ignoring, not turning head to voice
  • Lack of curiosity about the environment
  • Unable to read body language of other dogs (either own or strangers)
  • Unable to read body language of people (either own or strangers)
  • Excessive fear of noises (most dogs are fearful of the vacuum cleaner)
  • Excessive fear of sudden or quick movements
  • Ignores pain (bumps head accidentally without reacting)
  • Inappropriately anxious, scared in general
  • Inappropriate emotional response (not reaching to be picked up)
  • Self-stimulation, sexual or otherwise
  • Self-mutilation
  • Attachment to unusual objects

Physical abnormalities                 

  • Dietary abnormalities (allergies, tastes, textures, bowl preference, location)
  • Repetitive and inexplicable head, paw or body jerks, unstable movements during activity or rest phases
  • Unable to stretch legs fully
  • Abnormal gait

Finally, I will say one thing.  Challenging as a dog with Canine Autism undoubtedly is … the rewards are massive as you develop a bond, an understanding and a relationship to rival all others.

Read more of Kerry Rhodes’ advice and tips here.

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