By Karen A. Soukiasian
Most veterinarians choose not to diagnose dogs with canine autism, even though the signs and symptoms exhibited are the same as in human autism.
Instead, they prefer to refer to the condition as a canine dysfunctional behavior.
In puppies and dogs, this behavior is rare. It is believed to be idiopathic, meaning the cause is unknown.
Some theorize it is a congenital condition inherited from a parent or relative.
They reason it is caused by a lack of mirroring neurons in the animal’s brain. Mirroring neurons mirror the behavior of others, thereby teaching an animal how to behave, and relate to other dogs.
Without properly working neurons, the dog rarely interacts with other people or dogs, which in turn causes a lack of empathy.
Most puppies and dogs diagnosed with “canine autism” are reactive and often lack socialization skills. Reactive animals often inherit an anxiety disorder.
Puppies lacking socialization skills are generally that way because they were removed from their mother and siblings during a vital developmental period of their growth.
They become reactive because they don’t know how to cope.
For example, reactive puppies or dogs with sensory avoidance, find it emotionally painful to have even their owners touch them.
Signs and symptoms of canine autism
Puppies with canine autism show little interest in interacting with their mother or siblings. They show little interest in playing or eating.
Other dysfunctional behaviors to watch for include:
- Avoidance/Withdrawal – Avoiding any new experience or situation. Retreating to a distance where they feel safe.
- Dysfunctional Interactions – Minimal interaction other dogs and people, including their owner. This includes normal activities such as feeding, playing, walking or socializing.
- Trance State -Appear to be in a daze, blankly staring at floor, wall or an object.
- Restrictive Behavior – Avoiding anything new, including people, places and things.
- Unable to Communicate – Flat personality. Cannot communicate normal feelings such as happiness, curiosity, silliness, fear, playfulness or anger.
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) – Compulsive repetitive actions. For example, walks around the borders of a room.
- Lethargic – Appears sluggish, but really has a lack of interest in participating in any activities; even in high-energy breeds.
- Compulsive Organization – Toys or treats organized by size, color or shape.
- Lack of Eye Contact – Will not make eye contact with people, including owner or with other dogs.
- Inability to Cope with Unexpected Stimuli – Over-reaction to loud or unexpected noises.
How to help your autistic dog
Fear is a huge part of survival. Most dogs learn how to cope with unexpected situations, but are not fixated on it.
For dogs suffering from canine autism, survival is paramount.
Dogs have learned to survive by association both good and bad. Those visual, audio and scent associations are stored in your dog’s memory and they learn how to respond accordingly.
To help relieve your dog of some of their anxieties you can:
- Help them adapt to new situations slowly, gently and with as few demands as possible. Do not baby them! That only reinforces their primary sense that there is something to fear.
- Be consistent.
- Establish and stick to routines and schedules. Normal puppies and dogs feel secure and thrive in established routines and schedules. Puppies and dogs with dysfunctional behaviors need that security.
- Keep things as simple and familiar as much as possible. Reactive dogs do not do well with sudden changes of residences, owners, food, furniture or playmates.
- Keep communication simple. Use one word whenever possible. Don’t overload them. Dogs with canine autism don’t care what you think.
Bottom line: Puppies and dogs that exhibit signs and symptoms of canine autism can, and do, make interesting companions. They are aloof. So don’t expect licking, serious tail wags or cuddles.
They may recoil from your touch, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t important to their unique way of thinking. They most likely are content.
Be patient, understanding and loving. A dog with canine autism cannot control this odd behavior. Accept their foibles. Enjoy and love them in whatever way works for you — and your pet.
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