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Can Dogs Be Autistic?

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Dog Health By Ben Team 7 min read August 13, 2020 39 Comments

Can dogs be autistic?
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Autism is a subject that elicits strong emotions in many people, particularly those who have seen a loved one struggle with the condition.

Making matters worse, the medical community does not yet fully understand autism spectrum disorders, and for the most part, questions outnumber answers.

This applies doubly to the subject of canine autism. Canine autism spectrum disorders haven’t been the subject of very much rigorous study, and opinions vary widely from one veterinarian and researcher to the next.

Some believe that the autism condition can, in fact, afflict dogs, while others are reluctant to label problematic behaviors as being caused by autism; instead, they consider these symptoms part of a dysfunctional behavioral pattern.

We’ll dive into the issue below and explain some of the key arguments from both camps.

Can Dogs Be Autistic: Key Takeaways

  • There isn’t yet a clear consensus about the possibility that some dogs suffer from autism. Some vets and researchers believe they do; others suspect some dogs suffer from a similar, but different affliction.
  • Some dogs exhibit a number of similarities to people on the autism spectrum, and these conditions often occur alongside genetic conditions that are linked to autism (such as fragile X syndrome).
  • Regardless of whether a dog is suffering from an autism-spectrum disorder or something else entirely, there are a few things you can and should do (like avoiding stressful situations) to help your dog feel his best.

What Are Autism Spectrum Disorders?

Before delving deeper into the issue of canine autism spectrum disorders, let’s review the basic facts about the condition.

Scientists don’t fully understand autism spectrum disorders – even when they occur in humans. And although most children that suffer from the disorder do exhibit some biochemical differences when compared with their peers, there is no “laboratory test” for autism. A subjective diagnosis is made based on the examination of behavioral characteristics.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (a division of the National Institutes of Health), people with an autism spectrum disorder often exhibit a combination of social problems related to the ability to communicate and interact with others, and repetitive behaviors.

autistic dog

Some scientists suspect that the root of autism spectrum disorders occurs in specialized brain cells called mirroring neurons, and there is some data that backs this assertion.

These neurons are involved in the recognition of emotions in other people, empathy and mimicking behaviors. Accordingly, dysfunction in these neural circuits would explain some of the symptoms associated with autism spectrum disorders.

As it turns out, dogs have mirror neurons too. As in humans, these mirror neurons play an important role in the bonding process and other social behaviors.

It is therefore possible that dogs suffering from autism-like conditions have problems with their mirror neurons, but this has yet to be established conclusively.

Symptoms Displayed by Presumably Autistic Dogs

Regardless whether scientists ultimately discover that dogs can get autism or they demonstrate that dogs cannot suffer from the ailment; many dogs exhibit symptoms that are similar to those of autism in humans.

Some of the most common symptoms include:

  • Lethargy or disinterest in activities that would be fun for most dogs
  • Repetitive behaviors
  • Walking in slow motion
  • Failure to make or hold eye contact
  • Over-reactions to loud noises or surprising occurrences
  • Displaying a trance-like state
  • Focusing on floors, walls or other inanimate objects for prolonged periods of time
  • Displaying anxiety when faced with new things or activities
  • Difficulty or failure in exhibiting emotions
  • Failure to interact with their owner or other dogs

Always Work with Your Vet

Note that some of the symptoms discussed above are also associated with other health problems, such as canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD) and liver issues.

So, be sure to take your dog in for an examination if you note any of the symptoms above.

Here’s a brief video showing the bizarre pre-feeding behavior of a dog suspected of having autism:

A Cluster of Corroborating Clues: Fragile X Syndrome, Tail Chasing, and Bull Terriers

Although scientists do not fully understand what causes autism, several risk factors have been identified, such as being male, having an autistic sibling, or being born to an older mother.

Another important risk factor is the presence of any of several other medical conditions, including:

  • Tourette syndrome
  • Tuberous sclerosis
  • Fragile X syndrome

Fragile X syndrome is an inherited genetic disorder that is located on the X chromosome. Some research indicates that as many as 60% of those diagnosed with fragile X syndrome also exhibit an ASD.

Among other symptoms, fragile X syndrome causes the development of a prominent forehead, an elongated face, large ears, and a high-arched palate.

Bull Terriers and Tail Chasing: OCD Or Something Else?

can dogs be autistic

Scientists have considered the possibility that autism spectrum disorders can afflict dogs since 1966.

However, the subject didn’t receive a whole lot of attention until a few researchers began investigating the tail-chasing behavior commonly seen in some bull terrier lines.

At first, the scientists suspected that the tail-chasing behavior was the result of an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

However, after comparing the genetic code of the bull terriers with other breeds that exhibit OCD-like problems, they found that the bull terriers lacked the mutation responsible for triggering OCD in these other breeds.

Once they knew OCD wasn’t the cause of the tail-chasing behavior, the scientists began considering other possibilities.

Some noticed that these tail-chasing terriers also exhibited other behavioral quirks. For example, many were from seizure-prone lineages, some displayed explosive aggression, and some were prone to entering a trance-like state. Also, most of the afflicted dogs were male.

Fragile X Syndrome in Dogs: Bull Terriers Look The Part

These traits are consistent with autism in many ways, but it wasn’t until scientists noticed another similarity between these bull terriers and some autistic children that they really started to suspect these terriers were suffering from a form of autism: Bull terriers look like they have fragile X syndrome.

can dogs have autism

As with humans who suffer from fragile X syndrome, bull terriers have a prominent forehead, elongated face, protruding ears and a high-arched palate.

Encouraged by this new insight, the researchers began testing the blood of these terriers to look for biomarkers of autism. In doing so, the scientists found that many of these bull terriers had elevated levels of neurotensin and corticotrophin releasing hormone, just like autistic humans often do.

So, while consensus has yet to be reached, there is a growing body of evidence that does suggest autism-like disorders can occur in dogs.

How to Treat a Potentially Autistic Dog

Regardless of whether canine autism is an actual ailment or if the condition is caused by some other illness or dysfunction, the important thing is that you give your dog the highest quality of life possible.

You’ll need veterinary assistance for some treatments, but there are also a variety of steps you can take on your own.

Some of the best ways to treat a potentially autistic dog include:

  • Medications: There are a variety of medications used to treat autism in humans, and your veterinarian may be able to prescribe one or more medications to alleviate or curtail some of your dog’s most troubling symptoms. For example, fluoxetine (Prozac) is used to treat problems associated with autism and OCD in humans, and is also used to treat similar conditions in dogs.
  • Avoid Stressful Situations: Many dogs that exhibit autism-like behaviors are fearful of people, particularly strangers. In such cases, it is wise to simply avoid situations that force your pup to interact with strangers, such as going to the park or the pet store. Just make sure your dog still gets ample exercise. You may even consider obtaining a dog-friendly treadmill.
  • Veterinary Home Visits. You may also consider looking for a vet that makes house calls (they do exist, although they aren’t common), so you can still obtain quality veterinary care, without needing to take your dog into the vet’s crowded, noisy office.
  • Anti-Anxiety Wraps. Compression wraps and snug-fitting clothing like a ThunderShirt (or a similar DIY alternative) may also help your dog feel safe and protected, as they do for dogs with a variety of behavioral and emotional problems.
  • Secure Kennel Space. Be sure to provide dogs that display autism-like symptoms with a quiet, secure kennel or similar hiding spot into which they can retreat when frightened. Having a crate provides your pup with a safe space to call his own, and go a long way in helping your dog cope.
  • Crate Covers. A crate cover can also do wonders to make your pup feel more secure.
  • Plenty of Exercise. All dogs need exercise, but it can be especially helpful for alleviating the stress and anxiety of some autistic dogs. You can increase the workout value of a regular walk by fitting your pup with a weighted vest or a saddlebag filled with water bottles.
  • Physical Therapy. Some dogs respond very well to physical therapy, especially when it involves a calm, reassuring touch and massage-like techniques.

In all cases, remember that there is no one-size-fits-all treatment for dogs that may be suffering from autism-like conditions. You’ll want to tailor the treatment to your dog’s specific challenges and help shield him from things that may trigger undesirable behaviors.

***

If you think your dog may be suffering from autism, contact your veterinarian or a behavioral specialist and have him evaluated.

Although you may not get a definitive answer, you’ll surely benefit from your vet’s opinion on the matter and any treatments he or she suggests.

With proper care and treatment, your dog will still enjoy a high quality of life!

Have you ever had to care for an autistic dog? We’d love to hear your experiences in the comment section below. Your story may even help someone else who is dealing with this challenge right now.

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Written by

Ben Team

Ben is the senior content editor for K9 of Mine and has spent most of his adult life working as a wildlife educator and animal-care professional. Ben’s had the chance to work with hundreds of different species, but his favorite animals have always been dogs. He currently lives in Atlanta, GA with his spoiled-rotten Rottweiler named J.B. Chances are, she’s currently giving him the eyes and begging to go to the park.

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39 Comments

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Mary

We are fostering with the intent to adopt a 1 1/2 yr old male Dalmatian and possibly pit bull mix. Scotty has been with an animal rescuer/foster mom who said it took him 3 months before he warmed up to her. She said he apparently had suffered abuse. I’m a retired elementary school teacher and as I’ve spent more time with Scotty, I’ve begun to wonder about autism.

Scotty has been with us 5 weeks. He appears comfortable in his large crate with two and a quarter of the walls covered with a blanket. He eats inside his kennel. The only time he’s in the house is to go in and out the doggy door to our back yard. Inside the house he’s terrified if he has to pass by my husband or myself.

Outside in the backyard at times he relaxes. Only on occasion and mostly at night he’ll play a little game of chase with me. Believe me, I can’t run so it’s a walking chase. Then the next day, he’ll be timid with me. It’s so sad to see him not enjoying life very much. We love him dearly and are hopeful he’ll become comfortable.

By the way, if a neighbor comes to the backyard fence to visit with us. He runs into the house. He learned the doggy door rather quickly but today it took a couple of hours before he would use it again.

Thank you for your article as it confirmed some of my suspicions. Whether possible abuse (I’ve no confirmation he was abused) or some mental or neurological problems are affecting him, it helps to read your suggestions. I had wondered about anti-anxiety meds but was concerned about the side effects. Fortunately for Scotty we gave few visitors due to COVID 19.

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Ben Team

Hey, Mary.

Thanks for sharing your experiences. We also appreciate the lengths you’re going to to ensure your pooch feels comfortable — it certainly sounds like the Scotty is suffering with some emotional issues, whether or not they’re related to autism. It may be wise to have a behaviorist or veterinarian examine your pooch with an eye toward autism. It may not change the way you care for him, but it may give you a little peace of mind.

At any rate, we thank you for doing your best to give him a safe home in which he can feel comfortable. Please give him some scritches from us!

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Molli M

We have a 6yr old Yorkie, male. We have had him since 6 weeks old. From the beginning we knew he was special. He has always been suspicious of people. He absolutely loses his mind when he sees another dog. Forget dog parks, he just loses all control. He sleeps every night in his kennel with the door open. He loves his babies and very protective of them. We have other dogs and he is very loving to the male Labrador but has extreme anxiety and occasional aggressiveness with our female Chorkie and they really only tolerate each other. He is definitely my pup but when he loses his cool, he bites everything in range. I have done so much research regarding his behaviors that autism seems to be the most logical conclusion. We will love him forever but knowing the triggers helps understand what we need to do to make his life as happy as possible.

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Ginny

Late to answer the post, I know, but I started to need researches just now. I don’t have a diagnosis yet, but after two years of hearing that my dog isn’t very bright, but knowing is not true, I’m almost certain she has problems in the autism spectrum. not too severe, but repetitive and almost obsessive behaviour, difficults to interact with humans or dogs unless she hasn’t known them since forever and anyway problems on HOW to behave with them. Anxiety or sheer panic if something in her routine changes (changed her food bowl…a nightmare) or if she’s in place with too many different stimuli. She sucks on her thumbs and hides for hours for reasons only she gets, she also apparently has a problem with a specific wall, no idea why.

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Tiff

For 10 years we had a dog that my husband insisted had autism. She’s been gone for 5 years now, but when she was with us, she exhibited very unusual behaviors. She would tail chase, but she would also do other repetitive behaviors. For a couple of years she attacked her own reflection in the plate glass window everyday. The thing that struck me as most odd was her complete disregard for other dogs. She didn’t notice them. A dog could be barking like crazy as we went for a walk and she wouldn’t even look at it. She didn’t play with other dogs either. I believe she thought she was human. She would play with the kids in the backyard. She patiently sat while they dressed her up and she would try to engage in their activities no matter how unlikely she was to succeed. Lastly she had unprovoked bouts of aggression. We put her through a retaining for 6 months and that helped a lot, but at age 10 she began again to bite. We had to euthanize her. Recently I met another dog (also a terrier mix) who behaved very similarly.

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Desirae Fellis

I have a 7 year old blue nose pit. We have known his whole life something was off. Turns out he has autism, suffers from seizures and is deaf

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Beth Widdows

I’ve been told that my dog has autisism and certainly displays many of the symptoms. He is medicated and that has helped. But all of his life I’ve exposed him to the things that can produce anxiety. He is a competition dog. Many things he just couldn’t do in the ring but others he does do. For example, nose work is a highlight for him. Something that works for his “disabilities” and lets him feel accomplished. He is now 12 and has had 2 years of nosework. His symptoms have signficantly reduced in the last few months. I believe letting him compete has helped him. Hiding him at home in a covered crate would just make him worse.

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Emma

This is just laughable tbh. Not the fact that dogs could possibly have autism as i feel that some might, but the fact that you picked up on behaviours or a ‘look’ of specific breeds which was BRED to behave /look like that.
Almost all collies ive met are absolutely insane.. Why? Because they are working animals and really do not belong in a home environment, another really intense working breed is the malinois, and you hardly ever see them as pets because they can become aggressive if they are not given a job, while the more intelligent breed and more commonly kept as a pet, the collie will just try and find something else to do. whether that is chasing shadows, or herding wheels the problem is that it doesn’t have the job it was bred to do. They have so much energy it needs to be expressed or you get problems. The video you showed is a a behavior of hiding food for later, it is a survival instinct, dogs will always be opportunistic scavengers which hides food in plentiful times and show those weird behaviors despite getting food consistently, I’ve witnessed this behavior myself when fostering a dog having a phantom pregnancy, stop feeding the dog so much and you won’t see the behaviour as as often.

If autism was a thing in dogs then you wouldnt need to pick the breeds which are already renowned for weird behaviour or looks and see it across all breeds, not just a select few.

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Meg Marrs

It’s fine if you don’t agree, but it’s worth noting we didn’t make this up – we’re just explaining the research that has been done in this area!

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Ben

Hey, Emma. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’d encourage you to check out some of the references I cited in the article to learn a little more about the issue.

Also, there are plenty of examples of behavioral traits being linked to morphology:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2253978/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3130372/

https://academic.oup.com/beheco/article/15/4/614/206550

These examples explore the interaction between genes, morphology and behavioral patterns in canines, carp and dragonfly larvae, respectively.

Thanks for reading and sharing!

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Anna Sakila

I have never thought dogs can have autism before. Thank you for sharing this info.

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M Crawford

I have a 9 year old boxer mixed breed dog that we adopted as 6 month old special needs puppy. She had severe fear issues without aggression. I always thought fear was not her only issue– she reminded me very much of children with autism I have known. It has been a very long road with her. She was so scared of he world hat she was starving herself when we took her home. It has been a very long road with her and she will always have issues but a lot has gotten better over time. Anti–anxiety medication only helped minimally in the beginning. Thundershirt is useless for her though the principle of pressure works. What really helped the most was having another dog and doing agility — not to compete but for her mental health. Also she has her own ate, her own bed. Having a regular routine. Agility is what really helped the most. Once she stated doing that, she was weaned of her anti-anxiety medication (about 5 years now) because it did not make her better. We mostly just practice with her. I was a major beakthrough – joy, and she went from wanting to bolt away from anything different to cautiously choosing to investigate some new things on her own. Our other fog gets bored doing he same thing. This dog could go though the same tunnel 100 times and still want to keep on doing it. It also helped to have a vet who worked with her a lot to make the vet a good safe place. Go hing too She has a ruptured CCL. The surgeon thought her issues greatly increased the chances of catastrophic failure of the implant so we went with a custom cast orthotic brace. She handled all he casting etc remarkably well..and she is doing great! I think what I have learned is that it is good to work with vet and trainer.. but there are also times you just have to listen to your dog and do the best you can. I think most people never would have recommended agility seeing her.. but it became the key that opened the door.

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Tracey

Hi. I have a 5 year old deaf bull terrier who displays all the behaviours above. I have had bull terriers for years but never a deaf dog so at first thought this behaviour was due to his deafness. His walking looking at the floor is so bad he walked right into a van and bumped his head last week. ive owned him 4 years and always knew he was special but never really considered autism. Great article

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Emma

If your dog is deaf and white and may or may not have blue eyes its usually down a merle genetic condition can effect eyesight too. other causes/names are leucistic or piebald.

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picaram

Thank you for sharing the post! I have never thought dog can be autistic 🙁

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Monique Hubrechts

I have a mix Beagle/Jack (Jeff) from a shelter. He fits in this description. He is very reactive to strange people, dogs, objects, all kinds of noises, etc… He can not control his emotions (negative or positive). He never plays and when I try harder he freeks out and starts biting my feet or the leash or running around like crazy. I’m working with him for 3 years now and tried a lot of different approaches, which ended up in only more frustration. Only the Thundershirt works very well in stressful situations. Now I finally found a good behavior specialist (she’s trained by Turid Rugaas from Norway). We go for walks on a long leash (10 meter) in very quiet environments (woods) where he can sniff around, go where he wants to go, making decisions by his own. We do not use “commands” or go in training-mode ! We also started mantrailing which gives a boost of self-confidence (Jeff is very good in it !). We make video’s and discuss his behavior afterwards in order to understand all communication signs (calming signals). This way I can better anticipate and help him to overcome difficult situations. I’m doing this for 5 months now and there is a lot of improvement, I notice especially that Jeff is happy, which is the most important.

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Meg Marrs

Sounds like you’ve done a lot to help Jeff adjust and found a routine that works for him – awesome work, he’s a lucky pup!

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Mariska

I’m practically certain that my dog, female, Little Münsterlander hunting-dog, has autism spectrum disease. I’m a psychologist and in my practice I’ve encountered a lot of humans with this disease. I recognised the same condition in my dog. As she was a puppy my vet described anti-depressives to her. She now is 12 years old, and has had a good life up till now, I hope a lot of years will follow. The things that struck me as weird were not being able or liking to interact with other dogs, not knowing what to do when I came home, she then copied the older dog, repetetive behavior, less facial expression than my elder dog.

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Meg Marrs

Fascinating Mariska. Interesting that she was able to learn from your other dog! Thanks for sharing.

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Rachel baird

I truly believe my bull terrier has tourette’s, I have owned and worked with this breed for 30 years so am more than family with tail chasing/trancing etc but never come across one with Odin’s symptoms, he has a physical tic and verbal one, severity depends on situation, would love to find someone else who’s dog has this.

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Jenny H

I did have a bitch who exhibited all the signs of Asperger’s syndrome. Behaviour-wise as well as physiologically.
She wouldn’t look anyone in the face. She was apt to totally ignore people. And she was incredibly dog aggressive.
She had eating problems (anorexia) and food sensitivities and skin problems.
Her behaviour did improve to ‘manageable’ when I put her on antihistamines — those that can also increase the appetite — but she was never ‘normal’.
I have recently read about imbalance in the gut bacteria being associated with depression and anxiety, and strongly suspect that this is a factor in Asperger’s Syndrome.

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Jane

I took a Beardie from a hoarding situation and the first few weeks I worked with him, he reminded me of the autistic children I worked with as a PT. I found that the techniques I used with the children – moving slowly, keeping the routine THE SAME, and pushing slightly more each time but always stopping before full blown panic, helped us move forward.

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Peggy Sullivan

Our shelter dog (4 yo lab mix) has been diagnosed by our veterinarian as autistic. After doing some reading on this condition, I totally agree. You mentioned that some of the techniques you used with autistic children helped with dogs with this condition. Can you recommend a book that might help a layperson such as myself do the same? Thanks so much for your comment!

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Beth Sargeson

I had an autistic GSD around 14/15 years ago. He was diagnosed by behaviourist Angela Stockdale at a workshop in Leeds, UK aged 2/3. Whilst trying to understand his behaviour better, I ended up doing a degree in canine behaviour and training and becoming a trainer myself. Then 3 years ago I had a daughter, who is currently awaiting her autism diagnosis any day now. I see a lot of similarities between the two.
Luca was an incredibly clever dog, learned over 70 different cues through clicker training but had no social skills whatsoever! Beautiful long coated boy, died last year aged 14.
I could honestly go on for hours about his various behaviours, probably enough to fill a book!

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Maria Newton

I owned a Bull Terrier who had autism. I spent 10 years protecting him. He was never able to be house trained. Prozac helped for a while.

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Ben

That’s heartbreaking, Maria. Thanks for sharing your story and for doing your best to take care of your pup. I’m sure he appreciated your efforts.

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Liz

Interesting article, thank you. Just a comment though, the behaviour displayed in the video is not that bizarre, the dog is trying to “bury” his food for later. I don’t know the dog’s circumstances, but I have seen my rescue dogs do this, usually when they are not that hungry and don’t want the other dogs to eat their food.

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Ben

Hi, Liz. Thanks for the comments. There are certainly several different possible interpretations of the dog’s behavior. I don’t see it as caching, but it’s certainly a possibility.

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Jenny H

Ah! But my Asperger’s dog used to bury her food — in the yard and in the washing basket. I saw it as a function of her ‘anorexia’. Food senstitivites — that DO go with Asperberger’s (I don’t know about other forms of Austism) — definitely put dogs off their food.
These rescue dogs might very well have been surrendered because their behaviour left a lot to be desired.

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Cindy Ludwig

Very interesting and well written. As both an RN and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who consults on behavior cases in dogs, I would only add that I recommend the Original Anxiety Wrap over the Thundershirt. The Anxiety Wrap, invented by the late Susan Sharpe, CPDT and shown to be over 80% clinically effective by a team of researchers led by renowned veterinary behaviorist, Dr. N. Dodman at Tufts University, was the result of experimentation with over 90 different prototypes before Susan decided on a design. The Thundershift came out 8 years later, and in my opinion is not nearly as well designed or effective. That said, I recommend the old design of the Anxiety Wrap rather than the new design, which looks more like the Thundershirt.

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Meg Marrs

Thank you Cindy – always nice to get a 2nd opinion on these things! Good to know.

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Kim Lynn

Bull terriers only look this way because of human breeding techniques so that isn’t true.

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Aubrey

I agree that video is just showing caching behavior so I’m not convinced of the significance there. Bull terriers however look that way because they have been bred for those features. Those features are part of their genetics. Fragile X syndrome is an inherited genetic disorder. So while it is true that people have selectively bred and created this breed, they could have been selecting dogs with these features unknowingly selecting and breeding dogs who actually have the inherited genetic disorder. Makes perfect sense from a biological standpoint.

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Ben

Hi, Aubrey. Thanks for your comments. You may be right about the dog in the video — there are certainly several plausible explanations for the behavior exhibited.

Emma

This doesn’t explain the slow transition into the facial features though, the dogs haven’t always looked like that, 100 or so years ago the breed looked pretty normal. in fact today the features are exacerbated by the kennel club and strict in line breeding, just as with almost any other breed.

Ben

Hi, Kim. Thanks for your comment. While it’s true that artificial selection is largely responsible for the look of most dog breeds, that doesn’t mean that every trait exhibited by a dog was deliberately selected by the breeders.

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Ben

Hi, Cindy. Thanks for the kind words about the article and your perspective on the Anxiety Wrap vs. Thundershirt.

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Monny

Hi ya I think my dog fits more than perfect in this description. If anyone who wrote this article could reac me that be awesome. I have an English bull terrier

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Ben

Hi, Monny. I’m happy to try to help in any way I can, but I’d recommend consulting your veterinarian about your bully if you suspect he may be autistic.

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