Parents of children with anxiety, autism spectrum disorders or sensory processing disorders sometimes tell me they think there’s a missing piece.
Something more they could be doing. A therapy they should be trying. A strategy that would just click and calm anxiety, encourage communication or improve sensory processing skills.
I don’t think they need something to click.
They need someone to bark.
Yes, I’m a huge dog lover. I have three dogs and one is a therapy dog. But this recommendation isn’t based on emotion.
It’s based on facts.
Research validating animal assisted therapy goes back hundreds of years and continues today.
Child psychiatrist Boris Levinson, in 1961, participated in a meeting of the American Psychological Association and argued that dogs could help children with autism with their emotional health.
“Seeing heart dogs” was the term Levinson used in his book Pet-Oriented Child Psychotherapy, to describe the emotional connection dogs have with children on the autism spectrum.1
Companion animals are great. Therapy dogs, however, because of their training and their tolerance for lots of human interaction, are especially beneficial for a child with an anxiety disorder or an autism spectrum disorder, at home or in a clinical setting.
Let’s examine the many ways they can help.
Therapy Dogs at Home
There are many ways a therapy dog can help anxious children at home.
A Forever Friend
One young boy, with diagnoses of autism and social anxiety disorder described his therapy dog as, “A real live teddy bear, I can tell him anything. He always listens and he never laughs at me.”
Therapy dogs provide numerous benefits for children with anxiety disorders and autism spectrum disorders
Children who are anxious and feel disconnected from their peers need the unconditional love of a therapy dog. The bond and the joy it brings to the children (and the dog) is priceless.
The ability to trust and confide in their dogs often leads anxious children to be more open with adults and aides in their ability to make friends. Experts in animal assisted therapy describe the relationships between dogs and children with autism, or with severe anxiety, as transformative and life changing.
A Transition Tamer
Children with anxiety and autism spectrum disorders often struggle tremendously with transitions, especially after school.
One of my young students, with Asperger’s Syndrome, would throw himself on the floor upon arriving home from school. Jeremy was spent. It took everything he had to keep it together during the school day.
Like clockwork, by 3:20 P.M., he was done.
He would go into a full-blown meltdown every day that lasted twenty minutes to an hour. His behaviors ranged from screaming and crying to kicking toys and banging his head on the floor.
Having done a functional behavioral assessment of him in class, I knew that transitions at school were always problematic. I assumed the same was true at home.
I asked his mother to record his behaviors, the triggers (antecedents) and the consequences (outcomes.)
Every school day around 3:20 P.M, he had a meltdown when he walked through the door.
His mom said the only thing that seemed to calm him down, or intercept him from falling apart, was if their neighbor’s Saint Bernard was outside.
Jeremy loved that dog. He would practically dive out of the moving car, barreling over to pet him, still wearing his backpack.
Mr. Magoo, the Saint Bernard, was not a therapy dog. He was old, docile, and loved being lavished with the affection of an exuberant 8-year-old boy.
Mr. Magoo…all 205 pounds of him, was the solution to Jeremy’s end-of-the-day meltdowns.
Mr. Magoo began waiting at Jeremy’s house every day after school. Jeremy could cuddle with Mr. Magoo, walk him, and have a snack with him. Even watch cartoons with him. For as long as he wanted.
(Mr. Magoo’s owners were retired and thrilled Mr. Magoo could moonlight as a therapist.)
It was a happily ever after. Mr. Magoo helped Jeremy transition to his after school routine. The meltdowns quickly ended, and Jeremy’s behaviors in school, at the day’s end, improved as well.
A video of Jeremy and Mr. Magoo eating an ice cream cone on Jeremy’s front porch could have been a commercial advertising therapy dogs for anxious kids.
Children on the autism spectrum often struggle with transitions. Coming home to their peaceful, gentle therapy dog calms them. It eases their transition from the sensory overload of school to the home environment, which, while less chaotic, is also not as structured.
Lack of structure is very difficult for many children with autism spectrum disorders.
Acting as a bridge of sorts, therapy dogs help children go from one task to another, one routine to another, with a stabilizing presence by their side.
You may not be fortunate enough to have Mr. Magoo as your next-door neighbor.
If your child, like Jeremy, responds well to dogs, a therapy dog might be something you want to consider.
A Homework Helper
Therapy dogs at home can “assist” your child with homework by being read to, or by providing calmness when homework is stressful.
Those are the simple uses of a therapy dog. Then you can get really creative:
A few years ago, I was tutoring a child with severe disabilities, including anxiety disorder, who little interest in school.
Brandon loved dogs, and because he was blind, took great comfort in petting their fur.
Being a special education teacher and a writer, I embedded Brandon’s IEP goals into a personalized curriculum that involved elaborate fictional stories about my three dogs: Shiloh, Melanie and George.
As the tale unfolded, my dogs operated a detective agency, owned by Shiloh.
Shiloh was the dashing 1930’s-era detective, reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart. Melanie and George, his faithful assistants.
They solved mysteries that just so happened to incorporate Brandon’s goals for math, language and Braille readiness skills.
These elaborate stories became the basis of my student’s curriculum. The stories were engaging and they distracted him from many of his health challenges, including anxiety.
Parents can use storytelling techniques to integrate learning or therapy goals into stories featuring the therapy dog. The therapy dog helps the child be successful in a variety of scenarios whether it’s reading, learning multiplication tables or just providing a soothing presence for stressful activities.
An Exercise Buddy
Therapy dogs and even companion animals engage children in physical activities, which improves their physical and mental health.
Melanie Jones, an expert in animal assisted therapy at Lead the Way in Melbourne, Australia says, “ By walking the dog, throwing the dog a ball, even grooming the dog…these all involve rhythmic, repetitive activities which calm the central nervous system. These are doing-strategies which calm the child and get him moving.”
Research has proven the beneficial effect of exercise on physical and mental health. Pairing physical activity with a therapy dog makes the activity more fun for the child, and more likely that she is going to participate.
Therapy Dogs in Clinical Settings
Therapy dogs are becoming fixtures in mental health counseling, speech or occupational therapy clinics, hospitals and medical offices.
Mental Health Counseling
Heidi Corso, MSW, LISW-S, an Early Childhood Mental Health Therapist at OhioGuidestone says her therapy dog, Izzie, greatly benefits her young therapy clients.
“Izzie is goofy,” Heidi laughs. “She’s fun and sassy and she lightens the mood. When she is with me at work I can get more out of a client…she brings empathy and a non-judgmental piece to the therapy session.”
Children definitely trust dogs. They let their guard down, and this propels therapy sessions forward.
Heidi explains, “Children, especially those with a trauma background, respond so well to Izzie and are very productive. Izzie is a channel to lead them to problem solve, she helps brings down walls. The children trust her and their parents get excited to see her!”
Mental health counselors are not the only professionals who use therapy dogs with their young clients. Many speech and occupational therapists say children benefit from the therapy dogs in their practices as well.
Ask if your child’s therapy practice has a therapy dog “on staff.” If not, and you think a therapy dog would improve your child’s therapy experience, shop around.
Chances are, it won’t take you long to find one that does. Melanie says her training facility struggles to keep up with requests for trained therapy dogs.
Speech and Occupational Therapy Clinics
Myshl Beyer, MOT, OTR/L is an occupational therapist in Solon, Ohio. She is also the proud owner and handler of Noah, a 3-year old Old English Sheepdog who is a registered therapy dog and Canine Good Citizen.
At The Center for Lifeskills, Noah successfully works with children with various disabilities, including anxiety.
Myshl says, “I had a boy with selective mutism, which some theorize is based on anxiety. I was able to establish a rapport with him using Noah.”
“My young client began with using standard hand signals that dogs follow, to “help” me train Noah to follow basic commands. The child was really motivated to work for me, with Noah as a reward.”
Then, amazing things started happening!
“The boy progressed to make sounds because of Noah!” Myshl continues, “He began whispering words because of Noah, and eventually he mumbled some phrases because of Noah.”
“He thought that Noah would perform tricks when he said sounds and combined them into words…i.e. “s” “it” for sit, “d” “own” for down, etc.”
Helping a child with selective mutism begin speaking isn’t something Noah does daily. But it shows the success therapy dogs have in clinical settings.
Myshl concludes, “In general when I have a child with anxiety, knowing that Noah is here and will play in a cool way makes them more open to begin therapy. Children like that Noah will follow them when they crawl through a tunnel, or when they call Noah through a tunnel he will come.”
Like so many clinical therapy dogs, Noah makes the therapy experience more fun and more relaxing for an anxious child.
Hospitals and Medical Offices
In addition to mental health and specialized therapy clinics, hospitals around the world use certified therapy dog teams to give emotional support to their patients, young and old.
Therapy dogs are becoming common in lobbies, waiting rooms, and on the patient floors of some of the largest general and children’s hospitals. Patients and visitors enjoy the anxiety relief, social stimulation and diversion that therapy dogs provide.
If your child has surgery or medical procedure scheduled, speak to the facility’s Child Life Specialist or social worker to see if therapy dogs are on staff.
It’s quite likely they have a therapy dog at the facility. If not, they can probably contact a volunteer bring one for your child. They are always very willing to accommodate whenever possible.
Specially trained dogs have an almost transformative power for children with anxiety disorders and autism spectrum disorders. While numerous peer-reviewed studies validate this fact, it’s the success stories of animal assisted therapy, like the ones I’ve shared, that make it real.
Therapy dogs give children security and relief from anxiety.
Having a therapy dog in your home or clinical practice might be the missing piece you’ve been looking for to comfort your anxious child.
1Levinson, Boris M. and Gerald P. Mallon. 1997. Pet-oriented child psychotherapy. Springfield, Ill. U.S.A.: Charles C. Thomas. (18th ed.)