Dear Developmental Doc:
I recently read an article describing the benefits of therapy dogs for kids with issues that ranged from autism to ADHD. My daughter has ADHD. She has a terrible time staying on task and maintaining sustained focus. But she loves dogs. She has been asking for a puppy since she began to talk and this month is her 10th birthday. I am considering getting her a therapy dog but wanted your opinion first. Do you think getting her a dog would help her become more organized, or am I just “crazy” and creating even more work for myself and my family?
Nellie H., Claremont, CA.
You aren’t crazy. In fact, you sound like a wonderful parent who is trying to come up with creative ways to help your child become more responsible. Therapy dogs for children with special needs is a relatively new direction for working animals, but I have been using “certified play therapy canine companions” (certified by the Delta Society) at my multidisciplinary treatment facility with great success, particularly with children impacted by autism, ADHD and selective mutism.
Before you bring a therapeutic pet into the life of your child and the rest of your family, please consider some thoughtful questions that might help with your decision. Any living creature brought into a home demands care. If this experiment with your daughter is not successful, are you prepared for the upkeep of a puppy, or is the person from whom you receive the dog willing to take the animal back? What are your expectations for your daughter once she gets the animal? Do you imagine that all of her impulsivity and disorganization will suddenly disappear? What are the consequences if she forgets and/or refuses to feed the animal or clean up after it? If done correctly, your daughter’s motivation behind wanting a dog can fuel the need to take charge of her life. But plan ahead so you can put your child in the strongest position to succeed with her new pet. I would encourage researching the kind of dog that fits best into your family: Do you want a puppy that can grow with the family or an adult dog that is already housetrained? Even with an adult dog, I would suggest some kind of training program that will allow your child and her dog to be a ‘good fit’ with each other. Will you be getting your pet at a breeder or are you comfortable considering rescue organizations? Size, breed and temperament are critical factors that will compliment or complicate the decision to bring home a pet.
Before bringing the dog home, you may want to create a contract with your child that specifies clear task expectations and consequences. Once home, I suggest augmenting the contract with a visual map that further delineates the point by point of the care and feeding of her dog. Realize that in all likelihood, a new dog will not mean that your daughter gets all of her homework done, cleans her room or that she even remembers to bring home all of her books/assignments. But there are significant benefits for encouraging your child to think about something other than herself (theory of mind), not to mention the proprioceptive input/exercise that she will get by walking, grooming and playing with her dog.
Overall, adding a pet to your home means adding another member to your household. Although the benefits of therapeutic dogs are numerous, the decision remains deeply personal and I encourage realistic reflection before you take the plunge.
Esther B. Hess, Ph.D. is a developmental psychologist and executive director of a multidisciplinary treatment facility in West Los Angeles, Center for the Developing Mind. For more information and/or to contact Dr. Hess please visit CenterForTheDevelopingMind.com.