By Heather Pyne
If you’ve seen pictures of autism assistance dogs you’ve probably seen a child with a lead tied round their waist which is attached to the dog. This is tethering. Tethering is really popular with assistance dogs and children but it’s not a practice we allow for lots of reasons.
1) for safety of the child. When you tether a child the aim is mostly that you’re trying to stop that child physically being able to get away and most of the time that might seem like a good thing. But what happens when your dog goes wrong. Remembering that’s dogs are not robots, even the best trained dog can suddenly spook. If the child is tied to a dog which has just lurched forward or knocked them sideways into a road the child can’t help falling whereas if they were holding a lead they would simply drop the lead.
2) for safety in emergencies. With more than 100 guide dogs for the blind getting attacked each year, as an assistance dog owner it’s highly likely you will have a situation where their is an out of control dog around you. If that dog goes to attack your dog, you’ve now got a child stuck in the middle of a dog fight. Before you say, you could just quickly unbuckle the child, you have to remember your child won’t be standing still, they’ll be flailing and spinning round in a blind panic. Perhaps their lead will get twisted around them or the dogs. Not safe.
3) Its rarely actually necessary. It would only ever be ethical to tether a dog if the child they’re tethered too isn’t ever going to dig their heels in and really pull to get away. so to remain tethered and walking without pulling the child is already having to have behaviour modification if they’re being tethered to stop bolting. The majority of young people who are capable to change their behaviour from bolting/ wandering to walk with their dog loosely tethered are going to be capable of changing from bolting/ wandering to holding a dog lead/ grab handle and this is actually much better.
4) if a child really will try to run off then tethering just isn’t safe or welfare friendly. The dog will be put under unnecessary and unpleasant physically pressure as the child
tries to bolt. We have really high, strict welfare standards at Pawsitive Squad and allowing this would go against those standards. If this level of tethering is genuinely needed to keep a child safe, then they need to be to thethered to an adult human whose given consent and made a decision to tether or a special needs buggy should be used.
5) the psychological impact. Sometimes when children who are prone to bolting are tethered they initially get into blind panic, pull, try to run etc but after a few sessions mysteriously calm down and accept being tethered. When this happens it’s a concept called ‘learned helplessness’. It’s not that the child has made the positive decision to engage with tethering it’s that they have realised that no matter what they do they can’t get away. Learned helplessness causes severe psychological issues. It's disempowering and detrimental to their mental health.
There’s actually loads more reasons we don’t like to tether children. Instead we work with a behavioural modification approach, encouraging the young person to hold a special grab handle with is appropriate for them and their dog. Yes, it takes longer to stop a child running off but we’ve also had 100% success using this and we work with a lot of young people whose needs are quite complex.
There are however, some very rare occasions where we do allow hands free waist harnesses where the handler is over 18, has no reason why their behaviour may be erratic AND where the handler have severe mobility or strength impairements in both hands which means that no other form of lead handling is safe and practicable. In these circumstances, an adapted hands free lead is used where the buckle or strap will break under pressure. The dog must have a robust temperament and be reliably heel trained before this is considered.