Part One- Diagnostics
There is no doubt pets play an important role in our lives. According to the AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) 36.5% of all households own a dog (69,926,000 total dogs in the US); 30.4% own a cat (74,059,000 total cats in the US), and quite a high percentage, multiple pets. You can look up ownership of fish, ferrets, rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, gerbils, other rodents, turtles, snakes, lizards, other reptiles, poultry and livestock on the AVMA website.
On neighborhood walks, pets are a child magnet, and children often volunteer spontaneous stories which can be quite entertaining. Sandi walked Teddy after school every day. School age kids would tell her about their dogs or cats. ‘Muffy growled at the baby and daddy hit him. Muffy cried and ran away,’ one boy said. Another little boy said his dog couldn’t go for a walk anymore because he had “ah-thrytis” and was very old. They were going to put him to sleep soon so he didn’t have any more pain, but it wasn’t time yet.
To the engaged listener, children and adolescents relate stories of pet antics, interaction, misbehavior, examples of pet compassion, mishaps, illness or even death. Working with stories of animals can be a powerful tool, in much the same way art therapy can. Sometimes, children or teens act out against an animal. Pet abuse can be an indicator of abuse and maltreatment in the home. At the Cincinnati Children’s Pediatric Mental Health Conference, Barbara W. Boat, PhD, Director of The Childhood Trust and Associate Professor at University of Cincinnati College of Medicine Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience presented a workshop on ‘The Toxic Triad: What Every Practitioner Should Know About Children’s Experiences With Animals.’ Boat is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in the treatment of post-traumatic stress and dissociative disorders; training and utilization of evidenced-based interventions for traumatized children and their families.
Boat illustrated how the CTSARE Childhood Trust Survey on Animal-Related Experiences [10 Screening Questions for Children, Adolescents and Adults] http://www.humaneresearch.org/content/childhood-trust-survey-animal-related-experiences-survey-instrument-now-available can be used as a valuable tool in screening for domestic violence, child abuse, and trauma. By relating stories of their experiences with pets, children help clinicians better understand the physical and emotional climate in the home environment. Fearful experiences, harmful experiences, painful experiences can be addressed through the treatment of or treatment by a dog or cat. Boat gave several memorable and moving examples. She explained how many victims of domestic violence in the home are reluctant to leave because of concern for a family pet. Many shelters have begun to address the concern and provide assistance. See the Ohio Domestic Violence Resource Network Website: http://www.odvn.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=category&id=316&Itemid=318 Boat referenced other studies and her own experience studying the relationships among animal cruelty, child abuse and domestic violence, including dog bites.
Part Two-Children’s Experience with Assistance Animals
Danny Boy was a magnet for children. He could push a soccer ball across the lawn and give it a nudge towards the child to kick it back. He would chase it down, round it up and bring it back, and kids were delighted. He could slam dunk a ball bounced to him with his front paws, or leap up and give it a push with his nose. Children of recent immigrants who didn’t speak much English, could speak this universal language: play and delight. Danny was an ambassador of good will. He stood still for even the smallest toddler to pet his abundant fur, and pranced in proudly as the doors to the assisted living facility opened, as if he were on a mission to bring joy to the seniors as well.
A recent New York Times Article- http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/11/giving/11DOGS.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 explains the difference between service and therapy dogs- therapy dogs visit residential centers, hospitals and schools, while service dogs live with a family 24-7. See article below and the importance of these animals in working with autism- about 1 in 110 children. WebMD has a more cautious take on success rates, and cites statistics that 1 in 88 children have some form of autism. http://www.webmd.com/brain/autism/news/20130226/can-therapy-dogs-help-kids-with-autism [NBC4i has recently had a series on autism and support available in Central Ohio.]
The service dog organization, Heeling Allies assistance dogs, “uses the term, Mental Health Service Dog over Psychiatric Service Dog for a several reasons. The word psychiatric carries a lot of stigma. We have found that a large percentage of people who have mental illness have an aversion to this word, since the word is often associated with deprecating words like, psycho, psychopath, psychotic, crazy and etcetera. In 2008, Darcie Boltz coined the term Mental Health Service Dog because she felt moved to developing a solution-focused term for this category of service dog.” There is a long list of benefits this type of dog can provide, listed on the website.
It’s not so easy for a dog to become qualified to become either a therapy dog or a service animal. http://www.tdi-dog.org/HowToJoin.aspx?Page=New+TDI+Test There are very specific criteria and rigorous test criteria. Child & adolescent experiences with animals is a huge topic with many stories and angles. From being a most useful and beloved companion, to becoming unwitting victim, pets are an integral part of our lives, and an important consideration in any discussion of mental wellbeing.
Here are some more useful websites (out of what could become an extensive index):
Mental health service dogs http://www.mentalhealthdogs.org/Psychiatric-Service-Dogs.html
http://www.tdi-dog.org/ and therapy dogs in children hospitals
tail waggin tutor program in schools http://www.tdi-dog.org/OurPrograms.aspx?Page=Schools
Read more about pets in autism therapy with children:
Autism assistance dogs: http://4pawsforability.org/autism-assistance-dog/
[Photo credit: Danny Boy taken by Ruthe]