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Integrating Pet Therapy Into Daily School Life

By Miriam Brous, Ed.C
WebMD Feature from “Exceptional Parent” Magazine

Bonding between animals and humans has been noted for a long time. Stories abound in literature of the ways that people and their pets have fostered and created valuable relationships. 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. Children who have difficulty relating to other children and adults have been observed to behave differently with pets. They demonstrate greater self-confidence, more consistent awareness of the pet’s needs and the ability to take initiative to satisfy the pet—-they’ve made contact! Sometimes this improves their ability to transfer these behaviors to people.

An innovative pet therapy program was initiated two years ago at the ECLC of New Jersey school in Ho-Ho-Kus. Planned to integrate pet contacts into daily school life, the three-pronged program includes pet-partner dogs’ classroom visits, a facility/service dog, which has become an essential part of the physical therapy activities, and therapeutic horseback riding.

In collaboration with a dog trainer experienced in working with children with disabilities, the dogs and their owners visit each class weekly in a structured yet relaxed setting. The students learn to read the dog’s body posture, to teach the dog to respond to commands and to do tricks, and to guide them through an agility course. For some students, this has been a natural transition, for others, the animals have posed significant hurdles. Apprehension, timidity, and impulsivity are challenging behaviors that interfere with the pleasure of interaction. With encouragement and familiarity, many students have been calmed and some of the behaviors have been markedly modified.

Teaching the dog to follow commands may be the first time that the student has experienced being ‘a teacher;’ the student is in control of directing and evaluating the task. The child learns about consistency as well as the trials, tribulations and determination required to accomplish a common goal. “…they learn to speak a new language—dog—as well as read and respect it…”

The facility/service dog at ECLC, Patrina, is trained to do specific tasks that are helpful to a child with disabilities. Her training allows her to be an integral part of a student’s prescribed therapy plans, such as working on postural control and developing strength and balance. She is a familiar and very loved presence. Using facility/service dogs as part of physical therapy sessions serves many purposes.

Often, when disabilities are a factor, the challenges of moving one’s body are very difficult for students. Having a facility/service dog involved increases the level of interest and raises levels of arousal making movement less of a chore. The facility/service dog engages the student unconditionally and without words, creating within the therapy sessions a partnership that strengthens the student’s determination to persevere in spite of physical limitation or resistance.

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