Category: animal therapy

Home

Home

how to help my child

You can get your life back and give your child a chance for a good future.

My site is dedicated to helping parents of troubled children, teens, and young adults, and information is drawn from up-to-date best practices and research.  Use the search box to find information about managing challenging behaviors and self-care for parents. You really can turn your family’s lives around and help you child reach a safe, functioning adulthood.  This happens all the time.

How to pick the ideal therapy pet for your child or teen

How to pick the ideal therapy pet for your child or teen

“A pet is an island of sanity in what appears to be an insane world. Whether a dog, cat, bird, fish, turtle, or what have you, one can rely upon the fact that one’s pet will always remain a faithful, intimate, non-competitive friend, regardless of the good or ill fortune life brings us.”
–Boris Levinson, PsyD, Child Psychologist

Any animal can be a therapy pet, but put thought into finding the ideal pet

therapy catIt depends on your child’s individual needs and his or her innate appreciation of or connection with the creature.  Parents often think of furry animals like dogs or cats or “pocket pets” as the best therapy animals.  Dogs and cats are the most common, but they are not the only effective options.  (And some are problematic:  perhaps a family dog or cat is of no interest to your child, or is stressful because its behavior–easily agitated cats and chronically fussy dogs aren’t therapeutic!

What fascinates your child? What do they want–what creature(s) are they drawn to?  And are you willing to take care of this pet?  Your child’s therapy pet is not a lesson in responsibility… though that may be an outcome someday.  The pet is a therapist first, not a teaching tool.  Since you may be the responsible one, the pet must work for your needs and household too.

The right creature will reduce your child’s stress and continually delight them in some way.

Dogs and cats

Under the best circumstances, the right dog or cat will choose your child, calming them down or drawing them out of their shell. Dogs and cats are ideal for symptoms of anxiety, autism spectrum disorders, or depression. The right dog or cat is calm, loyal, and patient, and helps an insecure child or one who can’t handle emotional demands. Dogs also support physical exercise, and provide opportunities for significant life lessons.

True story – Some juvenile prison systems have dog programs, where the inmate is assigned a troubled shelter dog to train and teach appropriate dog behavior. Young inmates often empathize with a dog’s abuse history, and training the dog helps them learn patience, forbearance, and anger management.  The trained dogs are them adopted out to the community.  A program I personally know about has had very positive outcomes.

Pocket pets

Pocket pets help children who like touch, and bring out a child’s nurturing side. Small animals can also be playful and amusing–ferrets have especially silly antics.  It’s important the pet likes to be held, but it’s also important to prevent it from escaping and hiding. Their small size and habitat needs are better for small living spaces, and they can go anywhere with the child in a small carrier.  A concern may be their shorter lifespans. Is your child able to handle loss and learn from it?

Birds

Birds are smart ‘pocket pets’ and very loyal to the person they bond with.  A bird that’s purchased young or been hand-fed as a chick is tame and will readily perch on a child’s shoulder or finger… or happily hide out in a pocket.  Most birds can be taught words, whistles, or even songs in human language.  They are pretty, charming, highly interactive, and long-lived.  Birds are good for depressed children who need energy and stimulation, and children with ADHD who need attention and interaction.  Like a pocket pet, a bird can also travel with a child in a small carrier.

Reptiles

Reptiles aren’t often considered as therapy pets, but reptile lovers will tell you that they are indeed therapeutic and have inidividual personalities. Most are quite beautiful. Many like to be held and carried.

“She fell asleep in my shirt and nobody saw her. I noticed I was able to communicate with other people without problems. When I started to feel anxiety I put my hand over her and it calmed me downI was able to go in [a store], do what I needed to do and get out without a panic attack.”
–Teen with social anxiety disorder speaking about her Bearded Dragon.

Ask if a pet store will allow your child to hold one of their reptiles for sale.  Common pet store lizards that are good for children are:  leopard geckos, bearded dragons, and iguanas (which need lots of handling at first).  Like other small animals, reptiles can escape. Turtles are usually easy to find, but not lizards or snakes.  There are lizard leashes on the market for this reason.  Most snakes available on the market like to be held, or will accept it if handled often.

Fish

Beautiful calming aquariums are excellent sources of visual delight and serenity. There is a reason aquariums are placed in waiting rooms and in psychiatric hospital settings.  They provide gentle entrancing movement in a miniature natural world—they are healing like Nature is healing.  An aquarium is good for children with intense anxiety they can’t express, often with schizophrenic or autistic symptoms.  The soft bubbling sound can be calming because it is steady and hides noises that may overstimulate a child who’s grappling with a stream of upsetting thoughts.  Read more about “calming rooms” and how visual and audio environments help children with tantrums, “Calming room ideas to prevent tantrums in autism and other disorders.”

Insects (yes, insects)

I have two stories about therapy with insects

True story – A depressed 9-year-old boy was regularly teased at school, then came home to a single mother who was always too distracted by dating concerns to spend time with him. His father found a second wife and started a new family and showed little interest in him.  The boy was smart and very interested in science.  He befriended a neighbor who kept hissing cockroaches to feed her lizards, and he would visit often and ask to hold a roach and pet it to make it hiss.  The neighbor allowed the boy to borrow one to take to school for show-and-tell, which he brought along in a plastic container.  The students were both fearful and intensely curious about this giant roach.  Except for the squeamish, everyone wanted to pet it to make it hiss.  He became the coolest kid in class.  His teacher was impressed because he told the story about hissing cockroaches, where they were from, and how they were part of a forest ecosystem.  He stopped being teased, and his teacher gave him more attention with science studies… all thanks to a lowly roach.

True story – An 11–year-old boy with ADHD found a praying mantis in his backyard and picked it up. He knew from school it wouldn’t bite, and that it caught and ate other insects.  He wandered around nearby homes looking for bugs to feed it.  When he caught something, he enjoyed watching the mantis snatch the bug from his finger and eat it with gross crunching sounds and goo…. awesome for a kid like him. He was allowed to keep the mantis in an empty aquarium. As Nature has it, it died in the Fall. His parents, however, purchased mantis eggs from a nursery to populate the yard the next summer. When they hatched, the boy spent hours amusing himself by finding and feeding the baby mantis population,and watching them grow to adulthood.  It reduced the hours he’d spend indoors on video games,and connected him with nature outdoors.

 

–Margaret

12 Ways Dogs Reduce Depression & Anxiety

12 Ways Dogs Reduce Depression & Anxiety

Most people know that dogs are good for one’s wellbeing, but these creatures literally improve one’s physical and mental health.

Dogs are medicine.

1. They lower our blood pressure

Research has proven time and time again that dogs significantly lower heart rates and blood pressure, before and after performing strenuous tasks. Blood pressure drops when one pets a dog. Petting dogs have also been known to ease pain and improve one’s immune system. It is like a dog’s mere presence is beneficial for pet owners.

2. They offer a soothing presence

Pets, particularly dogs, offer a soothing presence when one is performing tasks that take up a lot of mental energy. This goes a long way in helping speed up recovery of mental conditions.  It is well-known that some children will only respond to animals due to trauma or autism or intense anxiety.

3. They offer unconditional love and acceptance

Dogs are incapable of criticizing, judging or voicing their opinions. They snuggle up next to you even if you smell like poop.  Two reports describe the medical benefits of pets.  According to a 2013 white paper from the American Heart Association “…owning a pet, particularly a dog or a cat, is associated with decreased cardiovascular risk factors.”  The November 2015 Current Gerontology and Geriatrics Research published research showing “pet therapy programs have been shown to be effective in helping improve socialization abilities, lower blood pressure, and combat loneliness.”

There are other great therapy pets : “Benefits have been seen in owners of pets ranging from dogs, cats, birds, and fish to goats, chimps, and snakes.”  Be sure the right animal is matched to the owner.

4. Dogs alter our behavior

You or your child could come home annoyed at a million little problems that happened during the day, and maybe even taking anger out on someone. But imagine that before this happens, a smiling, tail-wagging dog walks up for attention.

Imagine, you or your child kneels and pets her, she licks your face and you smile. Just like that, your behavior is altered and chances that someone will become a casualty of frustration are now much better. People calm down in the presence of a dog, and don’t anger easily or use curse words.  Dogs make us slow our minds and our speech.

5. Dogs promote touch

There is no disputing the healing power of touch. An article published on Huffington Post cites that a 45-minute massage can reduce the levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, and build white blood cells which optimize one’s immune system. Hugging floods human bodies with oxytocin, a hormone that lowers heart rates, blood pressure and stress levels.

A study conducted at the University of Virginia showed that holding hands reduces stress-related activity in the hypothalamus region of the brain, which makes up part of the emotional center. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that stroking a dog can boost dopamine and serotonin levels while lowering heart rate and blood pressure.

6. Dogs distract us

It’s not a problem but a benefit! Dogs take us out of our heads and plunge us into another reality – one that involves affection, food, water… and scratching doggie butt for as long as we allow it. Distraction is sometimes the only thing you or your child needs when you have lost mental or emotional control. It is tough to ponder feeling awful when your dog is breathing in your face.

7. Dogs make us responsible

Owning a dog comes with responsibility and research has shown that responsibility promotes mental health. Psychologists assert that applying our skills to a job and taking ownership of a task helps build our self-esteem, which is why dogs are the most common therapy animals. When your child nurtures a happy healthy dog, it reinforces confidence and a sense of competence. This is especially important for troubled children who are often overtaken by their own thoughts and emotions.  Finally, pet care helps kids and teenagers learn independence and brings structure to their day.

Dogs pull a depressed or anxious child (or parent) out of their troubled head.

8. Dogs increase social interaction

Staying connected to other people or creatures is good for our depression. Starting a conversation is particularly scary for people suffering from depression. That isn’t true with dogs. They are natural social magnets that help pet owners connect with other people and maintain positive social contact.  Walk a dog, and people come up to meet the dog.

9. Dogs help one get into physical shape

Other than grooming, dogs need physical stimulation. This means taking walks and going out to a park to play. In the process of tossing a Frisbee or hiking with your pup, you get to exercise and enjoy nature simultaneously.

The energy boost consequently boosts your mood or blow off some steam.  Blood flow and oxygen to the brain is good for depression. When outside with a dog, your skin synthesizes vitamin D from the sun, which helps fight symptoms of depression.

10. Dogs are great listeners

The most effective way to release stress is to talk about it with someone. But what if you don’t have the courage to approach a friend? What if the idea of talking about your innermost worries makes you anxious?  Pet owners, particularly those who own a dog, will share their wishes and thoughts with a caring partner, with the guarantee that they won’t be disclosed to someone else. Even better, you can talk about your worries knowing that you won’t be judged

11. Dogs provide sensory stress relief

Movement and touch are some of the most effective ways to manage stress. Dogs offer the need for touch such as in grooming, petting and exercising them. Such tasks also help with sensory stress relief, which is particularly important for people suffering from depression.

12. Dogs help you find meaning and joy in life

Taking care of a dog can help lift morale and increase a sense of self-worth, optimism, and fulfillment.  If you’ve adopted a shelter dog, it’s also fulfilling to know you (and your child) provided a home to a dog that may have otherwise been euthanized.

Take care of your dog and your dog will take care of you.

Conclusion

The physical and mental health benefits of owning a dog for children, teenagers, and even the elderly are proven by research.

Note: Owning a dog is not a miracle cure for a family and child coping with anxiety and depression. Dogs are for those who appreciate and love domestic animals, and those who invest money and time to keep their dog healthy and happy.

By Andy McNaby

Founded by animal lovers, we provide honest reviews of pet products. We review products hands-on and we test products side-by-side, so you know you’re getting good honest reviews.