Children, especially those who are abused or neglected, are able to communicate with animals. A pet offers a safe place for a child with emotional problems. They give unconditional love, providing a security blanket.
Pets are wonderful for treating abused or neglected children, as they represent for such kids a sort of safe place. Since their love is unconditional, children feel free to establish an emotional communication bridge with the animals. And by observing the way they interact with pets, doctors can discover how to cure those unfortunate children. Animals can often reach children’s hearts better than adults could do in case of sad situations such as divorce, death or moving to another place to live.
For children with special needs, the ability to interact with a dog, cat, or other furry friend can have a very positive impact upon their quality of life. Interacting with a pet can sometimes enhance recovery following a serious illness. It can change behavior, create a sense of responsibility and even improve a child’s ability to participate in therapeutic treatment leading to achievement in relation to identified goals and objectives. Children are often extremely trusting and easily achieve a level of intimacy with animals. This special bond contributes to pets’ effectiveness as co-therapists.
The potential benefits of animal assisted therapy for children with special needs has been embraced by the Occupational Therapy staff at St. Mary’s Hospital for Children. The use of animal assisted therapy began as a pilot program in December 1998. The program was initiated with a monthly session using one dog and a small group of children. The program has evolved rapidly during the past two years to include several dogs visiting St. Mary’s Hospital for Children three or four times per month. Therapy is still conducted on a group level but an individual component has been added to include visits directly to the patient’s bedside.
For example, a child recovering from a traumatic brain injury experiences considerable difficulty dressing and grooming him/herself due to the loss of function in one arm. The therapist may ask the child to reach out with the weak arm to pet, brush or even feed the dog. The therapist may add a wrist weight to the weak arm in order to develop strength, or use an adapted brush with a special handle to assist the child in holding the brush. The child becomes motivated and excited to participate in treatment; thus helping to achieve treatment goals quicker and easier.
During the session, each child works with their occupational therapist either in their wheelchair or on a therapy mat arranged in a circle. The therapist uses a variety of treatment techniques to enable the child to work on specific identified goals while interacting with the dog.
Occupational therapist conducts the therapy session using the dog as a modality to facilitate the development of skills needed by the child to achieve independent functioning in the areas of self-help, play and learning. The children react with excitement and enthusiasm, always looking forward to the next visit from their “furry therapist.”
The children are also highly motivated to interact with the dog, allowing the occupational therapist to facilitate the use of skills needed for independence in such areas as: dressing; grooming; play skills; cognitive skills and fine motor skills. The occupational therapists involve the children in motivating activities that help them achieve, to the greatest extent possible, the self-help, play and learning skills appropriate for their individual age level.