ANIMAL THERAPY FOR KIDS WITH CEREBRAL PALSY & SPECIAL NEEDS
*Research shows that pet therapy has incredible benefits for kids with special needs. Below is an excerpt about dogs from our article on pet therapy.
For centuries, pets have been adored as loyal and loving companions. Dogs have been found in the tombs of Egypt, buried with their owners. Recent research supporting the notion that “dogs are people” was instantly circulated in media outlets such as the New York Times and CBS news. Researchers at Emory University found that dogs operate on the same level of awareness and feeling as a small child. In the study, researchers used MRI technology to study the brains of dogs. Researcher Gregory Berns wrote, “Now, after training and scanning a dozen dogs, my one inescapable conclusion is this: dogs are people, too.”
Dogs are not just loyal friends, but can be devoted assistants. One major benefit of having a service dog is increased independence as the dog performs tasks that were previously impossible for the child. A few ways in which a dog can help a special needs child are:
-The child with a visual impairment can walk in the park without holding on to another person.
-The child who uses a wheelchair can now retrieve dropped items without having to call an adult for help.
-The child with a hearing disability is alerted to the school bell signaling a class change.
- This independence can be accompanied by an increase in self-esteem as the child no longer has to rely solely on other people.
Too often, a child with a disability is shunned by other children – and some adults – who feel uncomfortable in the presence of a person with a disability. A service dog can be a great icebreaker, encouraging conversation and the formation of friendships.
Dogs provide companionship that is critical to the development of children with disabilities. Each week, Becky Bishop, owner of Puppy Manners Family Dog School, drives her chocolate Labrador retriever Moose to a school where the pair works in a class for kids with special needs. They bring along a leash and a dog brush. "The kids with autism are very sensitive to touch," she says. They don't like to touch the dogs but they like to interact with them. Through the brushing, they really connect."
After grooming Moose, a student puts a leash on the dog and the three walk to the front office, where Bishop asks him to introduce himself and the dog. Part of the goal is to get the child to speak. "Kids with autism don't normally like to go to the office and say 'My name is Michael'," she says. "They're much more willing if a dog can go with them."
For kids with cerebral palsy, Moose provides an incentive to stretch. The therapist will take a child out of her wheelchair, and have the dog lie with her on the floor. Bishop explains the reaction of one child with whom she works: "We'll put Moose just a bit beyond the child's reach, and she'll stretch out on her own to reach for the dog. The therapist says this is the only time she'll do it on her own."
Moose is a therapy dog, providing therapeutic support to people in a wide variety of ways. Uses for dogs in therapy are limited only by the imagination, says Laura Hardman, an animal assisted therapy provider. Dogs can be used to steady an individual when they're walking, or to support a person getting up from a seated position. Children may pet or comb the dog to exercise an arm, or throw a ball for the dog. Giving verbal commands to the dog helps with speech.
Bishop believes the magic that Moose is able to create with kids comes, in part, from his unconditional acceptance. "The kids feel safe with the dogs on an emotional level," she says. "The dogs take you as you are and have no expectations of you."
That acceptance is something Barbara Lock's daughter Sarahgene gets from her yellow Lab, Regis. Sarahgene has static diffuse encephalopathy, a neurological disorder occurring before or at birth. Some of the areas in which she struggles include gross and fine motor skills, balance, muscle tone and social communication. "If she's having a hard evening," Lock says, "she'll say 'Regis, let's go,' and she'll go into her bedroom and talk with him and cuddle him."
Unlike Moose, Regis is a "service dog." He has been trained to assist Sarahgene with things that she may struggle to – or be unable to – accomplish on her own. Service dogs are not considered pets, according to the law, and federal laws protect the rights of individuals with disabilities to bring their service animals into public places.
The most commonly known type of service dog is the guide dog, trained to aid a blind person. Yet while an individual must be 16 years of age to obtain a guide dog, many service dogs are trained to help younger children in other areas. A dog might notify a deaf child when the doorbell rings, pull a child in a wheelchair, or alert the parent if a child is about to have a seizure.