Putting My Dog to Work Helps Children Feel Better

Posted On Monday, 10 December 2018
Putting My Dog to Work Helps Children Feel Better

My dog Deuce is a shaggy black lab mix rescued from a kill shelter in the southern part of the United States. I took a leap of faith, adopted him and paid the fee to have him transported to New England without having ever met him.

I have been a guardian companion to dogs my entire life but had never before encountered a puppy with his level of energy and extra-terrestrial enthusiasm for human companionship. It was if he were two puppies rolled into one.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that this high energy and very social puppy was desperately in need of a task or mission. I decided that signing up for training and certification as a therapy dog might be just the career he needed.

The route to become a trained and certified therapy dog team has its merits but takes time. The Good Dog Foundation evaluates a dog’s overall behavior, temperament and health, how they react to loud noises, whether they’ve been exposed to children, if they have any history of aggression, and their training history. If you have a successful evaluation, you are assigned to six hours of training to work as a volunteer team with your dog and must demonstrate mastery of complex obedience drills even when they are distracted by other dogs, handlers, or general business in a room. Human handlers are trained, too, role-playing a variety of situations we might encounter during a therapeutic visit.

Deuce and I took the training in stride and passed the certification test with ease. For the past ten years, we have been regular volunteers at hospitals, schools, and reading programs around the state of Connecticut. We’ve regularly witnessed how a brief visit and cuddle from Deuce can bring needed comfort.

Deuce loves to go to work. When we are about to leave the house to volunteer, I always pull a special leash from the closet. The minute he sees it, his ears perk up and he stands alert and ready for the day’s therapy dog adventure. He happily jumps into the back seat of my truck and immediately settles down for the ride. When he hears the motor stop running, he sits up and looks around as if to say “okay, I’m ready for the today’s assignment.”

Recently, Deuce and I were asked to participate in a clinical study at the Yale Innovative Interactions Lab. The purpose of the study was to determine if therapy dogs can help children recover from stress. Our visits to the Yale lab were different than our typical engagements. Handlers were asked to watch our dogs interact with the children from behind two-way glass instead of on a leash. This would allow them to isolate the dogs’ impact on children who experienced a mild stress event and then contrast the effect of the dog with a soft, security blanket or simply waiting for 15 minutes. Before a child was introduced to the lab, Deuce explored the cheery room, which was kitted out with toys and good lighting. Once the research began, an investigator in the lab observed the children and Deuce having free play while I watched from the mirror. (I could have easily and instantly intervened if Deuce or the child became upset.)

All the children were young adolescents, ranging in age from 10-13, and every one of them seemed eager to be in the company of a dog. Deuce loved the attention.

Before the experiment, each child (and their parents) completed psychological tests, some of which explored children’s feelings and behavior toward companion animals. Then, they read and computed math problems out loud, both tasks meant to create mild anxiety and stress regarding performing well. During the recitation, Deuce sat near the child awaiting any indication from the examiner that it was time for him to be introduced and rewarded with lots of pats and hugs. From observing his tail wagging and relaxed body language, I knew he was in his element. Deuce is special dog who likes to please. He seems to know when someone if feeling sad and tries his very best to offer comfort by walking up to them, settling quickly by their side and perhaps putting his head in their lap or nuzzling their hand. This is clearly a demonstration of the strong canine humane bond.

The study included 78 children, plus Deuce and seven other trained and certified therapy dogs, who took turns interacting with children in the experiment groups. (Children were randomized into the dog group, a control group receiving a soft blanket, and the waiting group.) The research results published found that children who played with a therapy dog had higher positive emotions following stress compared with those who stroked a blanket or those who simply waited a short time without intervention. Children who played with a dog also had reduced anxiety compared with those who waited.

The most important takeaways from the study are that dogs, all by themselves, can improve children’s mood and ability to cope with anxiety, and that they can do so as a therapeutic intervention for stress recovery. I’ve seen this myself with my own dogs and the positive outcomes of those who spend time with these dogs has been reinforced by working as team with Deuce for the past decade. But it is very important to codify results so that experts can confidently build effective therapy dog programs. It is validating that the work Deuce and I dedicated so much time to is both meaningful and important. For more information about therapy dogs, visit http://thegooddogfoundation.org/

Heidi Greene

Heidi Greene is a Good Dog Foundation Board Director and Certified Therapy Dog Handler, who participated in the Yale Innovative Interactions Lab study with her dog, Deuce.

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