9 Best Small Dog Breeds for Autistic Children (Pros & Cons)

Discover the benefits of these small breeds and how to find a service dog

Clancy Giesbrecht
Updated July 14, 2023

Dogs are special because they offer devoted affection and attention without judgment. These selfless creatures love their owners unconditionally. 

That’s why over 68 million families in the United States own pet dogs. 

Dog ownership is especially beneficial for those on the autism spectrum. A companion dog can help an autistic child sleep, experience reduced anxiety levels, and adapt socially. 

The best small dog breeds for an autistic child are the Bichon Frise, Shih Tzus, and toy Labradoodles. These breeds are hypoallergenic, great with kids and strangers, and help reduce anxiety.

9 best small dog breeds for autistic kids

Compared to their larger companions, small dog breeds can live in smaller spaces, travel better, are more affordable, and live longer (on average). 

Here are some breeds to consider:

1. Bichon Frise

Bichon Frise

This breed is known to be playful, curious, and adventurous. They are a non-sporting breed that can live 14-15 years. 

Pros:

  • The top coat is soft, curly, and thick
  • Small size (12-18 pounds)
  • Highly trainable
  • Great with kids and strangers
  • Low shedding level (hypoallergenic)
  • Moderate activity level
  • Moderate intelligence

Cons:

  • Moderate barkers
  • Daily grooming required

2. Shih Tzu

Shih Tzu

Shih Tzus are a toy breed known to be outgoing and spunky. They are lap dogs who love to snuggle all day. They can live 10-18 years with proper care.

Pros:

  • The top coat is silky and fine
  • Small toy size (9-16 pounds)
  • Great with kids and strangers
  • Low shedding level (hypoallergenic)
  • Low grooming needs
  • Moderate activity level

Cons:

  • Moderate barkers
  • They are trainable but can be stubborn

3. Toy Labradoodle 

Toy Labradoodle

Toy Labradoodles are a crossbreed between the Labrador retriever and the toy poodle. This dog has a friendly, loving, and highly attentive personality. On average, they will live between 12-15 years. 

Pros:

  • Small size (15-25 pounds)
  • Highly trainable
  • Great with kids and strangers
  • Moderate shedding level (hypoallergenic)
  • Low grooming needs
  • Highly intelligent
  • Moderate-low barkers

Cons:

  • Coat consistency will vary (hair, fleece, or wool)
  • Highly active and energetic

Related: Regular-sized Labradoodles for children with autism

4. Miniature schnauzer

Miniature schnauzer

Miniature schnauzers belong to the terrier group. They are feisty and affectionate dogs who live between 12-15 years. 

Pros:

  • Small size (11-20 pounds)
  • Highly trainable
  • Great with kids
  • Low shedding level (hypoallergenic)
  • Moderate grooming needs
  • Moderate activity level
  • Highly intelligent

Cons:

  • The top coat is known to be wiry (which could irritate some kids)
  • While they can be good with strangers, some may bark or be suspicious of them
  • Can bark a lot

5. Cavalier King Charles spaniel

Cavalier King Charles spaniel

This toy breed is friendly and loving. As adaptable dogs, they will be satisfied getting active or cuddling on the couch. They typically live 12-15 years. 

Pros:

  • The fur coat is soft and silky
  • Small toy size (13-18 pounds)
  • Highly trainable
  • Great with kids and strangers
  • Moderate activity level
  • Moderate intelligence

Cons:

  • Moderate barkers
  • Moderate shedding (not hypoallergenic)
  • Daily grooming required

6. Yorkshire terrier

Yorkshire terrier

Also known as a Yorkie, these spirited dogs are little with big personalities. They are known to be feisty, confident, and assertive. Yorkies live between 11-15 years. 

Pros:

  • Hair is silky and glossy
  • Small size (7 pounds)
  • Highly trainable
  • Great with kids (over the age of 5) and strangers
  • Low shedding level (hypoallergenic)
  • Moderate-high intelligence

Cons:

  • Can bark a lot
  • Daily grooming required
  • Highly active and energetic

7. Toy poodle

Toy poodle

The toy poodle is intelligent, alert, and lively. They are athletic and can live 10-18 years. 

Pros:

  • Hair is fluffy and soft
  • Tiny size (4-6 pounds)
  • Highly trainable
  • Great with kids
  • Low shedding level (hypoallergenic)
  • Highly intelligent

Cons:

  • Can be aloof with strangers
  • Can bark a lot
  • Daily grooming required
  • Highly active and energetic

8. Pembroke Welsch corgis

Pembroke Welsch corgis

Corgis are agreeable, goofy, and dependable herders. These dogs live to be 12-13 years old. 

Pros:

  • Small size (up to 30 pounds)
  • Highly trainable
  • Great with kids (over the age of 5) and strangers
  • Moderate grooming needs
  • Highly intelligent

Cons:

  • The coat can be soft and smooth, but their thicker waterproof fur might irritate some
  • Can bark a lot
  • High shedding level (not hypoallergenic)
  • Highly active and energetic

9. Beagle

beagle

Beagles are happy, intelligent, and sociable dogs known to be loyal. This hound can live between 10-15 years. 

While this dog is not for everyone, they are perfect for active and curious children.

Pros:

  • Small size (20-30 pounds)
  • Great with kids
  • Highly intelligent
  • Moderately trainable

Cons:

  • The coat can be soft and smooth, but it is coarser
  • Can be unfriendly to strangers
  • Can bark a lot
  • Moderate shedding (not hypoallergenic)
  • Highly active and energetic

The benefits of dog ownership for autistic children

Children on the autism spectrum experience anxiety, sleep problems, sensory sensitivity, and trouble interacting socially. 

A dog in the home alleviates several symptoms of autism. Dog ownership: 

  • Helps with social interactions. Dogs act as conversation starters for children with autism who struggle to communicate. They can teach children to read verbal and non-verbal cues and provide a purpose to talk with others.
    • As recent research finds: “Across a heterogeneous group of studies, the most consistent finding [of animal-assisted intervention] was increased social interaction.”
  • Alleviates sensory processing issues. Trained dogs sense when a child is overwhelmed or overstimulated. Instead of destructively stimming, children can comfort themselves through gentle sensory movements like petting. 
  • Reduces anxiety and outbursts. When interacting with dogs, humans release positive hormones like oxytocin. Through their undivided attention, dogs comfort children and can nudge them to stop unwanted behaviors. 
  • Develops independence. Through dog ownership, children learn responsibility by caring for a living creature. This can increase self-sufficiency and independent life skills.  
  • Promotes better sleep quality. Dogs can sleep with children to comfort them and provide deep pressure therapy. A child can learn to cope with sleeplessness by petting a dog to soothe them back to sleep.
  • Decreases family stress. It can be overwhelming to care for an autistic child without support. A dog can help families by being an attentive play companion and emotional stress reliever. 

Increases safety. People can train dogs to alert parents to emergencies or track a lost child. Since autistic children are prone to wander, extra eyes offer peace of mind to parents. 

Ideal characteristics of autism support dogs

Not all dog breeds are suited to be companions for children with autism. 

Example: The dachshund barks a lot, does not like strangers, and has a fragile constitution (back problems). For these reasons, this places it on our list of worst dog breeds for autistic kids.

In general, you should look for a small dog that: 

  • Has a softer coat (rough fur or hair can be irritating to a hypersensitive child)
  • Rarely barks
  • Is calm and gentle
  • Loves kids and strangers
  • Has moderate or low exercise requirements
  • Is low maintenance 
  • Is intelligent

Comparing service dogs, therapy dogs, and pets

If you want a dog for your child with autism, you’ll need to decide what kind of dog you want. Some dogs are trained to perform tasks, while others are not. 

Service dogs

Service dogs are the most universally accepted support animal.

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) allows service dogs to assist people in most public spaces, like schools and restaurants.
  • According to the ADA, service animals are “any breed and any size of dog” and are “trained to perform a task directly related to a person’s disability.”
  • Service dogs for autism are trained to assist a child when socializing, calm a panicked child, and alert guardians in emergencies.

Example: If a child starts to stim harmfully or get overwhelmed, a dog can apply deep pressure touch by laying on the child’s lap. 

Service dogs do not have specific requirements other than the ones listed above. You can pay an agency to train a dog or train your own dog.

Therapy dogs and emotional support animals

Therapy dogs provide emotional support to children. Their presence reduces anxiety and produces a soothing psychological effect. 

  • These dogs may have some special training, but it is not required. Any dog that is patient, calm, loves being touched, and is gentle can make an excellent therapy dog. 
  • Therapy dogs are similar to service dogs. However, they do not have legal access to public spaces under the ADA. 

Pets and companion dogs

Pets live in the home but are not specially trained to perform tasks. Companion dogs are well-mannered and house-trained.

  • A child can still benefit greatly from the loving company of a pet without special training.  
  • Like therapy dogs, pets cannot legally access public spaces. 

How to find a service dog for your child 

Before you decide to get a service dog, consider: 

  • Cost. Training dogs can be expensive, averaging between $15,000 and $50,000. Parents can obtain grants and financial assistance through some organizations. 
  • Time commitment. It takes 1-2 years to train a service dog.
  • Finding an agency. There is no government licensing requirement for service dog training. If you decide to work with an agency, ask for credentials from the program to verify its legitimacy. You can start searching using the trusted Assistance Dogs International tool. 

National service dog organizations


Name
Name
Services 
4 Paws for AbilityThis organization offers specially trained autism assistance dogs. Fundraising assistance is available. 
Canine Companions for IndependenceService dogs are free to the recipient. Assistance Dogs International accredits them.
Paws With A CauseAutism service dogs are free to the recipient, but the organization recommends fundraising.  

What tasks do autism service dogs perform?

Autism service dogs reduce a child’s anxiety, increase sleep quality, provide comfort, assist with social interactions, and boost vocabulary and communication. Dogs also alert guardians to emergencies. 

Final thoughts

Dogs are scientifically proven to help children with autism by decreasing anxiety, panic, and social fears. The presence of a dog can drastically improve the quality of life for families with autistic children. 

Besides dogs, we also recommend a few other animals for autistic kids. Check out our best pets for a child with autism.

Written by Clancy Giesbrecht

Clancy Giesbrecht

Clancy Giesbrecht is an English teacher with a special education certification. She teaches students with various special needs, including autism. She helps students by providing a consistent routine, teaching social skills explicitly, and keeping in mind how much sensory input students receive at one time. She provides individualized accommodations and scaffolds for each student to promote maximum growth based on strengths and weaknesses. She graduated in 2017 from Pepperdine University in Los Angeles before moving to Lubbock, TX. When she’s not grading papers or writing, she enjoys traveling with her husband, walking her dogs, reading fantasy novels, and playing board games.