When Dawson turned seven years old, his mother Becky Brunton decided it was time for the world to see what he could do. Diagnosed at 18 months with autism, Dawson didn't speak and, according to his mother, people assumed he would never attain any level of independence.
Enter Roscoe, a chocolate Lab specially trained as a service dog to work with autistic children.
Bringing Roscoe into their home in Barrie, Ont., challenged Dawson to think for himself and gave him new confidence to take on responsibility, says Brunton.
Now 14 and working with his third service dog, Dawson has developed limited verbal skills, can walk down the halls at school independently and cross the street alone.
"Roscoe opened the door for people to notice the power of an individual with autism," Brunton says.
Janine Walters, a dog trainer at National Service Dogs (NSD) in Cambridge, Ont. - a facility that pioneered the training of service dogs for autistic children in Canada - says the dogs have a way of grounding the children so they don't feel as overwhelmed by daily tasks.
"It gives a child a sense of pride and independence," Walters says. "They no longer have to walk through a mall hanging on to their parent's jacket."
Walters says becoming a service dog involves an intensive four- to six-month obedience training, during which they are taught to use a vest/belt system that will eventually attach them to an autistic child.
When the dogs are finished their NSD training they have to be "bomb proof," Walters says, which means they must be obedient, calm and have no fear of people, objects or loud noises.
The service dogs' positive impact on Dawson seems typical of many autistic children's experiences, according to a recent Canadian study by researchers Cindy Adams and Kristen Burrows.
Most children with the service dogs demonstrated decreased social anxiety, increased calmness and a reduced number of "meltdowns," according to the findings. (Many people with autism have difficulty with social interaction and experience higher anxiety levels).
"The dogs are stable and warm," says Adams, a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Calgary. And, she adds, through their proximity to the child, whether in the home or in the community, routine tasks such as getting ready for bed or going for a car ride became more manageable.
Increasingly, dogs are being employed to help the development of children with a variety of special needs.
A new study conducted by Lori Friesen, a doctoral candidate at the University of Alberta, looks at the benefits of literacy learning with a therapy dog.
Where service dogs undergo intensive training to assist a disabled person, therapy dogs - owned by volunteers - provide therapeutic interaction under the guidance of a service organization, according to therapyanimals.org.
Although still analyzing her results, Friesen observed that many children in a Grade 2 class felt motivated when they had the option to read to a dog.
In of a class of 18, each child voluntarily signed up for three months to participate in the program.
While careful not to draw too many conclusions at this stage, Friesen suggests the dogs offered a nurturing reading experience. Some children who lacked confidence became more confident in their reading abilities.
"(The children) may feel they've been heard or understood," Friesen says. "The dogs are not judgmental. They take the focus off the child's struggles and redirect it into something fun."
Friesen's initial conclusions seem to be supported by the positive outcomes of the Paws 4 Reading program using therapy dogs in North Vancouver.
"It's going gangbusters," Brown says of her program. Similar programs operate in the U.S., Australia, Italy and India.
Volunteers from Paws 4 Reading visit elementary schools every week for an hour and selected children can read to a dog for 20 minutes at a time.
Brown says the dogs seem to work magic on the kids.
"The dogs are soft, furry and look at (the kids) like they're the best reader they've ever heard," Brown says.
Even a boy with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder who usually can't sit still can rub Emma, Brown's black Lab, while reading fluently for 20 minutes.
"Animals provide unconditional love and they don't judge you. They'll accept anybody as long as they're nice," says Eileen Bona, a psychologist who provides therapy to children with behavioural challenges and special needs.
For the past seven years Bona has held her practice at a ranch near Edmonton, Alta., where she pairs her patients with rescued animals as part of a therapy process. Bona has not only seen dogs but also cats, horses, rabbits and even llamas contribute to breakthroughs with her patients.
Bona suggests it comes down to something called the biophilia theory.
"It says we've evolved from nature and we're more relaxed in a natural setting," Bona says.
"We learn better when we're in a relaxed state and animals represent nature."