Can dogs experince Autism, Aspergers or ADHD or a similar psychological condition? Is it possible for dogs to experience dyspraxia? One can not answer either of these questions as it has not been scientifically proven. However, some do show symptoms of these conditions. Some dogs do have genuine learning difficulties. I would like to call these dogs ‘Dogs with Special Needs'. 


Learning difficulties can occur for several reasons. It can be due to social and/or sensory deprivation as a puppy. It can be the result of experiencing severe physical and/or emotional trauma. It can also, of course, be genetic 


Early Learning  

A puppy needs to learn how to communicate and interact within the first few weeks of their life. In particular, they need to learn canine communication skills. Whilst they can learn the language at a later date, as with children, they are far more receptive and able to learn at a young age. If they do not learn from a young age, their social skills will not fully develop. 


They may be unable to cope with frustration, thus becoming impatient and/or ‘giving up' easily if they do not understand what is wanted of them. Some dogs appear to be disobedient, when in fact they are actually stressed. Liken it to nervous laughter in people. 


Lost World 

If a dog has experienced severe mental trauma, they often create their own world as an escape from reality. This is a coping mechanism. Whilst this may sound bizarre, it is not as uncommon as you would think. It is often seen in long term kennel dogs.


Some dogs will withdraw only under stress but in severe cases, it can be a permanent state of mind. 


Dogs who have adopted this coping strategy may also described as disobedient. They may be said to ignore any request from their owner or carer. These dogs are not ignoring their owners. They are simply unaware of the world around them. Most of them have communication problems and become withdrawn when any interaction is invited. 


Below are a few characteristics found in dogs with special needs :


  • Moving in a disjointed manner 


  • The hindquarters and the forequarters do not move in unison. 


  • Appearing clumsy 


  • Can not always gauge the width of openings, such as doors or gates; trip over or bump into objects 


  • Experience Absences 


  • Unaware of their surroundings including people and animals within it. Stare into space or at a wall with a blank facial expression. 


  • Over - reactive to sound, movement and/or touch. 


  • Inability to communicate 


The main reason for anti-social behaviour towards people and/or other dogs is the inability to read what another person/dog is trying to communicate and not being able to communicate in response.They are also unaware of the effect they have on other dogs or people.


Highly Intelligent 

But at the same time, can have difficulty in retaining information. Like us, any dog's mood can change from day to day for no apparent reason. This causes them to be less responsive to training some days more than others. In dogs with learning difficulties this normal trait is exaggerated. t random, they can as if they have never been taught a familiar exercise. 


In the case of dogs with anti-social issues, they can appear to have lost all the social skills they have learnt in communication classes, even after a couple of years. This normally only lasts for one session and may not re-occur for many months. This apparent relapse tends to occur less and less as they develop their social skills. 

Many dogs probably show one or two of these tendencies but dogs with learning difficulties always show many of them. 


These dogs can be trained and/or taught how to overcome social issues the same as any other dog. It is even more important with these dogs that any training and/or rehabilitation be tailored to suit each dog's individual needs and learning abilities. It is important to recognise that if the dog does have learning difficulties, the ability to learn may fluctuate from day to day. You will need to lower your expectations of the dog on days that they are less receptive. 


Obviously, the younger the dog is when it's learning difficulties are recognised, the easier it is to prevent behavioural problems. The most common of which, in my experience, is dog to dog aggression due to lack of communication skills. These dogs can learn to communicate with the aid of Teaching Dogs. Some interesting points I have noticed are : 


  • If they are aggressive towards other dogs, it is rare that they physically make contact with the other dog. But if they do, they display little bite inhibition and are not fully aware of their actions. 


  • Any hostile approaches are not personal attacks on any particular dog. They are not necessarily hostile towards the same dog at the next meeting. 


  • Their recovery rate is extremely quick. I.e. they appear to have totally forgotten the incident almost immediately after. 


  • Their behaviour at the classes reflects their general mood of that day. If they are having a positive day i.e. responsive to their owners, enjoying interaction, they will happily attempt to interact with the other dogs. If they having a negative day i.e. are non-responsive and withdrawn, they will either be more reactive or totally withdrawn at the classes. 


  • On negative days, either the dog does not attend classes or they are allocated an area of the field, either on their own or with a specifically chosen teaching dog. The option taken will depend on the individual dog. 


  • Any interaction offered by these dogs is of a purely instinctive nature e.g. flirting with both males or females. Sometimes rush towards dogs playing then just observe them, making no attempt to interact. They can become predatory as in being excited by fast movement and will respond to a dog that instigates a chase but when the dog stops, they ignore the other dog. Whilst they maybe interact, they are not necessarily communicating. 


  • Teaching Dogs are far more tolerant of them, and rarely react to any of their displays of aggression towards other dogs. Most dogs without social issues tend to ignore any anti-social behaviour. Dogs with social issues may react initially but then ignore them. 


  • The dogs they are most likely to interact with are dogs that also have learning difficulties. 


Never assume a dog is being ‘stubborn' or ‘disobedient'. If inability to learn appears to be random and/or illogical, consider this theory. It may not have been scientifically proven that dogs do suffer from some of the same psychological conditions as people; it does not mean that they do not.

Autism in dogs? 

The Dog Partnership 2011

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