What can an ADHD therapy dog do for your child? Researchers have long observed human-animal interaction relating to the use of Emotional Service Animals (ESA’s). Under the American Disabilities Act, ESA’s can be used when the owner has a “diagnosed psychological disability or condition, such as an anxiety or personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), ADHD, depression or other mental health disabilities.”
While animal-assisted intervention (AAI) has been around for decades, researchers have only recently begun tracking and supporting these practices. Among their findings: ESA’s can help reduce stress and problem behaviors, while improving cognitive function and attention span.
According to the ADD Resource Centre, an estimated 6.4 million American children ages 4 to 17 were diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in 2017. Most recently, child development specialist Sabrina E.B. Schuck performed the first-ever randomized trial aimed at using therapy dogs to reduce the symptoms of ADHD in children.
As the assistant professor-in-residence at the University of California, Irvine Medical Center, Schuck sought alternative psychosocial therapy that would help children calm down and focus. “I would never say that kids always need medicine or don’t need it,” said Schuck on UCI’s blog. “But we also need to learn who benefits from animal-assisted interventions and how we can measure its effectiveness with or without medicine.”
Social Interaction Before Medication
Over the course of 5 years, Schuck studied a total of 88 children, ages 7 to 9, who had all been diagnosed with ADHD, but hadn’t yet started medication. It had been her experience that patients who receive psychosocial therapy prior to medications fared better behavior-wise in the long run.
“The take away from this is that families now have a viable option when seeking alternative therapies to medication treatments for ADHD, especially when it comes to impaired attention,” said Schuck. “Inattention is perhaps the most salient problem experienced for individuals with this disorder.”
While it may seem counterintuitive to add an animal to the mix with studying children who are so easily distracted, but Schuck saw evidence to the contrary. “It takes a lot to engage kids who are hyperactive when doing activities they don’t necessarily prefer,” she argued. “Working with the dogs seems to motivate children to participate in tasks they would otherwise avoid.”
During the course of her study, Schuck noted that children who interacted with the dogs experienced a reduction in inattention while their social skills and self-esteem improved. Furthermore, Schuck reported that the parents of the children in these research groups reported fewer problem behaviors over time.
While the interactions had no effect on symptoms such as hyperactivity and impulsive behavior, Schuck noted that in her experience, these factors tend to decline with age, whereas “problems with attention tend to persist through life and are the most challenging to treat.”
Ultimately, Schuck would like to see similar strategies incorporated into other parts of a patient’s life as part of a larger family of alternative therapies. “Our main goal is to see how we can safely and effectively implement this program to help motivate children to learn and participate in school,” she said.
If applied on a larger scale, it may not be long before children with ADHD are given even more tools to succeed. The greatest marker of success when dealing with ADHD behavioral strategies is not so much how exceptional the initiative is, but how normalized children feel as a result. As Schuck was quick to note, “The children in the dog groups were always on time.”