As much as we would like to shield our children from the evil of the world, the viruses, the abuse, the war, the absence of loved ones, we can’t. I’ve seen students hungry, neglected, poor, and sick. Any sort of peace, any sort of respite from the hurt that we, those who love them, see in their eyes, we’ll take it.
Help can come in surprising packages though, and that’s where animal therapy comes in. Animals can make all the difference.
Is It New?
Animal therapy isn’t new. Aside from the stories handed down from generation to generation of “man’s best friend,” and other beloved family pets throughout the decades, professional pet therapy has been going on for hundreds of years. According to the Animal Health Foundation (AHF), pet therapy was first utilized in a mental health facility in the 1700s. It was also used in helping soldiers recover after World War II. To this day, says the AHF, animal therapy is used hospice care, assisted living, schools, and rehabilitation, to name a few.
Why Animal Therapy is so Important for Children Today
While animals are used in therapy for people of all ages, we’re going to focus on how they help children. WebMD says, “More recently, research has shown a strong impact from the pet relationship in health-related settings. Positive changes have been seen in people developing resilience, self-reliance, and in making progress in treatment.” Animals can be especially helpful to children, the article goes on to say, in making connections. Child who struggle with relating to people can often making connections with animals.
There are a wide number of reasons children might have difficulty connecting with humans. Here are just a few:
- Children with neurological disorders, such as Autistic Spectrum Disorders, are often most hindered by the disorder in their abilities to communicate with people.
- Children with Down Syndrome often struggle physically with speech, and often experience delays in their language development. This can make it difficult for them to express their feelings, which often frustrates them.
- Children who are neglected or abused can suffer from mild language delays to being completely nonverbal.
- Children who are adopted by parents who speak another language often take months to years to learn their new language.
- Children who are deaf might experience difficulty in expressing their emotions, especially if they don’t have a good grasp on Sign Language.
- Children who have experienced traumatic events can find it difficult to discuss their feelings about the tragedies, as we’ll soon discuss.
Animals speak with their bodies, however. Modern Dog Magazine puts it this way, “Although dogs do use sounds and signals, much of the information that they send is through their body language, specifically their facial expressions and body postures.” Children don’t have to talk to communicate with animals. And that’s probably part of what creates the draw. Or perhaps it’s that the children can talk in whatever way they prefer, and the animals don’t talk back.
National Geographic says that after the Sandy Hook Shootings, “One boy confided in the gentle-faced golden retriever about exactly what happened in his classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School that day—which his parents said was more than he’d been able to share with them.”
How is Animal Therapy Used with Children?
In the Hospital: Phoenix Children’s Hospital says in its article, “Animal Assisted Therapy,” that, “Scientific research has shown that a patient’s interaction with an animal can provide positive physical and emotional benefits. It can reduce stress levels and invoke a sense of well-being.” More of the benefits listed in animal therapy for children in hospitals include a motivation for children to get up and out of their rooms to play, improve their moods, forget their discomfort or pain, and try things that may be difficult, such as eating or participating in physical therapy. Getting to spend time with an animal can be a great motivator.
In School: WebMD says a school in New Jersey has a program where children with disabilities receive time each week with a trainer and a dog (among other animals, such as horses). The children learn how to read the animals’ body language and they get to teach the dogs tricks themselves. They get to be the teachers for once, which helps instill confidence.
Therapy Dogs Interational has a program where therapy dogs are brought to schools. Children who struggle with reading often dislike reading in front of classmates for obvious reasons. Children will, however, often read to dogs. Dogs don’t tell them they’re doing it wrong or correct them; they just listen. This gives the children a safe setting in which to practice reading, instilling confidence and building skills at the same time.
Extracurricular Activities: Therapeutic Riding – Horse Therapy for Children and Adults with Special Needs is a program where people who are often disabled, have disorders, or have had a stroke, can heal and learn in a peaceful setting through riding horses. I know here in Arkansas we have a program some of the airmen from our base volunteer at, where volunteers can care for the horses, while the horses care for people.
Many of these people often have conditions such as Cerebral Palsy, Down Synrdome, Autistic Spectrum Disorders, and even learning disabilities. The program’s purpose is to, “develop increased balance and muscle control, improve concentration and short-term memory, and enhance their confidence and self-esteem.”
In Counseling: Animal Assisted Therapy Programs of Colorado uses animals (often rescued from bad circumstances themselves) to aid in counseling sessions. AATPC says, “For some clients, all that is needed is to have an animal present in the room for them to feel calmer and more open. This can be true for adults, couples and families, as well as with children and seniors. In addition to their presence, animals can be integrated to develop specific interventions, aimed at meeting pre-determined therapeutic goals.”
Animals can be especially helpful in their children’s programs for a few reasons. For one, the children look forward to the therapy sessions because they look forward to seeing the animals. This means less of a fight when children might not enjoy the therapy otherwise. Interestingly enough, certain issues such as, “sensory, personal boundary, attachment, relationship and sexual behavior problems,” can be address with special intervention when animals are involved.
Can My Pet Help My Child?
Programs like the ones I just listed use specially trained dogs, horses, and other animals to help children. That said, however, having pets can be very beneficial for children, especially ones who struggle with anxiety, disabilities, or who simply feel alone.
I can’t stress enough the importance of practicing safe facilititaion when children are around animals. I’ve been doing a lot of reading about children and dogs lately, and over and over again, I’ve read that it doesn’t matter how sweet the dog is, children and animals need to be supervised. Children can accidentally hurt or scare an animal, and the animal can simply react out of instinct, not meaning to hurt the child, but doing that very thing. Here’s a great article, teaching parents what signs to look for that show animals are feeling stressed.
I grew up around dogs. Over the years, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told my woes to my furry friends, but I can tell you that my dogs were often my therapists. They made me feel like I was their favorite person, like every word I said mattered. Whether I was having trouble with friends, school, or life in general, my dogs listened. My dogs licked my face when I cried, and they snuggled close when I needed hugs. As a child with lots of anxiety, I needed my dogs.
Even today, I find endless comfort in my puppy. This little guy brings so much life into our house, that now I don’t know how we got along without his happy little face. Knowing puppies are a lot of work, I researched when we got the offer to adopt him. What did I find? Dogs aren’t just good for children; they’re great stress relievers for adults, too. And you know what? My findings were right. Little Bear is one of my favorite forms of stress relief.
I was greeted by this ornery face this morning, after my husband let him out. Little Bear has decided his morning is not complete until he’s found Daddy AND Mommy, and he’s figured out that when Daddy lets him out, Mommy is probably still in bed, so he comes to get her.
Do you have any stories to share of how an animal helped your child, or someone you know? I’d love to hear! Please share in the Comments Box below, or email me. Also, if you sign up for my weekly newsletter, you’ll get more resources on this subject later this week, resources I don’t include in my article. You’ll also get a gift as a thank you for signing up! Thanks again for reading!