Posted on October 7, 2015: “There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face,” philosopher Bernard Williams once said. Indeed dogs have multifarious therapeutic benefits for people of all ages. Children generally form a strong bond with animals, as they tend to interact with them without any inhibitions. Over the last few years, therapy dogs are gaining prominence in schools worldwide to help children both in regular and special schools in various ways.
To provide motivation to special children for improving motor skills
Minal Kavishwar, Founder-President of Animal Angels Foundation, a non-profit organization which engages in Animal Assisted Therapy for children with special needs says, “Therapy animals accept children unconditionally. They provide motivation for children with special needs to push beyond their disabilities. Children with spasticity in the hand lack proper motor skills and nerve control. They will be undergoing physiotherapy and other exercises to improve their gross motor skills like picking up, reaching out and extending arms. Children while performing these activities are not necessarily motivated. They may not be able to understand why these actions are being repeated and may consequently get tired and bored. If these activities are combined with a therapy dog, they become enjoyable. We make them do the same exercises with a therapy dog while holding a grooming brush and brushing the animal with long strokes. This helps them to work on the grip and hand movement. Extending the arm and giving the dog a treat will work towards the flexing of the arm. The children will want to do these actions on their own, as there’s a living animal responding to his actions. A special child with spasticity may take immense efforts to pick up a ball and throw it to play with a therapy dog.”
Facilitates the natural expression of emotions
Minal points out that therapy dogs enable special-needs children to express their emotions freely, “Working with a therapy dog provides the opportunity for the spontaneous expression of emotions. Children with autism are unable to emote in ways that are natural for us. When they interact with a therapy dog, we can see spontaneous smiles and the expression of affection towards the dog, which is difficult for children with autism. Special kids have a lot of sensory needs that the therapy dog fulfills in them. A therapy dog is an all in one package of sensory inputs.”
Therapy dogs enable children with autism to have better social interactions and improve both verbal and non-verbal abilities. Autistic behaviour like repetitive spinning, clicking noises, jumping, bolting and roaming are reduced. The children become more amenable in the process.
Therapy dogs help children with ADHD to be calmer and focus better. Aakash Lonkar, Director of the Mumbai branch of Animal Angels Foundation explains, “Stroking therapy dogs is known to reduce hyperactivity in kids. When we work with hyperactive kids, we ask them to pet the dog and to rest their head on him/ her. The softness of the fur helps calm hyperactivity and reduces anxiety in children with special needs.”
Children with ADHD can constructively burn off a lot of their energy by playing with a dog. Outdoor exercise with the canine accompanied by fresh air helps to increase the oxygen flow to the brain. If the child walks the dog early in the morning then he’ll/ she’ll be able to concentrate better in school.
Schools and dogs
To improve study time
“In regular schools, our therapy dogs go as reading buddies. They work with children who need support in studying. When a child reads out to a therapy dog, the inhibition of reading out aloud or making a mistake is reduced. The kids can learn at their own paces. Hence, the children progress without fear,” Minal says. Dogs unlike humans are after all non-judgmental.
Dogs can also offer a pleasurable break when monotony sets in while studying.
In the modern day, stress not only affects adults but gnaws away at the positive energy in children as well. Therapy dogs may help to alleviate stress. Aakash explains, “Studying with a dog and talking to him/ her is known to be relaxing. School counsellors work with therapy dogs to address stress and emotional issues in school children.”
After a tiring or difficult day at school, when a dog jumps on a child or snuggles with him/ her, instantly the day’s woes are halved and joy is doubled. Petting the dog increases the happy hormone dopamine in the brain. Depression is reduced in the process. Terminally ill children can also alleviate their mood when in proximity with a therapy canine. Loneliness is also reduced when with a beloved dog companion. Kids who are shy and inhibited in the company of humans, may gradually shed their inhibitions while interacting with therapy dogs.
If you want to learn more about Animal Angels Foundation and get involved with the wonderful work they do, you can contact Minal at +91 9987509102.