Using Animals as a Part of Your Child’s Programming


Before having kids, animals (dogs specifically) were my first love. My now-deceased dog Mell-O-D and I spent a number of years doing pet therapy, first at the PICU at CHOP, and then we joined a fantastic group called PAWS for People. Animal therapy has really evolved over the past decade or so and I’d like to explain some of the options that parents have.

Pet Therapy

Basic pet therapy is the discipline that most people think of when you mention, well, pet therapy. It involves a trained animal, not just dogs — cats, rabbits and many other types of pets are now being used. And a handler of course. Depending on their certification and the organization they work with, what they have been trained to do will vary.

This therapy is basically just a visit. The handler takes the pet to a facility, and either in a large group or 1:1 setting, the participants get to visit with the animal and the handler. This can be a great option for your child with special needs, particularly if you are not equipped in your household to own a pet or you have another family member with allergies.

Animal-Assisted Therapy

This is the next step up from pet therapy. This area of animal therapy has shown a tremendous amount of growth and potential in recent years. It involves using the animal as a catalyst to elicit desired behavior from the participant. This can mean either using the animal as a reward when the child does desired behavior (or eliminates undesirable behavior) or using the pet as your equipment.

Let me give you some examples. Many children with autism have difficulties accepting the task of getting their hair brushed. Working with an OT, they can work on brushing a cat, dog or horse, to sort of condition them to accepting the same sensation on themselves. And, say, the child particularly enjoys feeding treats to the animal. They get to give a treat to the pet each time they accept a brush across their hair three times. Brush three times, give dog a treat. Repeat.

For animal-assisted therapy, usually a trained therapist of some type is present. Of course it’s not realistic to think that every OT, PT, SLP and behavior counselor will have a trained therapy dog in their household, so usually the handler and animal come in as a third party. Hippotherapy is a great example of this. My son works with a PT. There also is a trained horse and two horse-handlers present, one as a lead and one as a spotter. The horse is used as a motivator and as a way to get my son’s trunk muscles to perform skills he may not otherwise perform in daily activities.

Courtesy of PAWS for People

Several years ago, my dog and I tried drug & alcohol counseling as animal-assisted therapy. Wait, let me rephrase that! We went to a drug & alcohol treatment center, and there was a trained counselor and group participants there. Mell-O-D, my dog, just wandered the room during the group therapy session. The behavior counselor led the session, my dog was just there to relieve stress in the room and remind the participants of what was waiting for them at home. Studies have shown that having a pet decreases stress in many situations. My only job was to bring the certified therapy dog to the session. I just sat quietly in the corner and kept tabs on my dog.

We also participated in a reading program at the Newark (DE) library. It has been shown that children who have reading difficulties often show progress in programs like these. While they may be too nervous and self-conscious to read in front of their class, they usually have no hangups about reading to a dog.

Another way we used our own therapy dog is with my son’s speech. He is non-verbal but he uses some words occasionally. We use our dogs as a motivator for him to pronounce some sounds. There also were some fantastic studies going on down at the University of Delaware, and using dogs to motivate non-mobile children to walk.

Service Animals

See our article on therapeutic horseback riding, with a list of centers that offer it.

This is the most intense and most involved of all the options. This area has also shown tremendous growth and potential in recent years. While many people still think of only seeing-eye dogs, there are more options. There are now seizure alert dogs, seeing eye, full companion, group companions and more. You also have to shop around for an organization that suits you. The application and receiving process could take months or more. And while insurance may cover some of the costs, most organizations expect you to participate in fundraising to help pay for it. It can cost $25,000 or more to train a service dog start to finish. My favorite local organization for this is Canine Partners for Life in Cochranville.

I hope I’ve given you some good starting points if you’ve been considering adding an animal to your child’s treatment repetoire. PAWS for People can be a great resource if you are choosing the animal assisted therapy option. Their fees are quite affordable for facilities and they really are the trendsetters in this region for expanding the options. They now have two live autism programs in the state of Delaware, they were one of the first to go into drug & alcohol treatment centers, they have  a fantastic relationship and programs set up with Easter Seals of Delaware and more.

Lisa Lightner is a Chester County, PA mom of two. This post was adapted from the blog A Day in Our Shoes, which she co-authors. It provides support, resources and advocacy services for parents of children with special needs.


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