Alice* knew something was wrong with her younger son’s behavior when he was five years old. Sebastian was acting out and responding angrily to otherwise normal, everyday events.
“He could be putting his shoe on, but as soon as you’d notice it, he’d throw it away and refuse to get ready,” says Alice. “Whereas other kids thrive on praise, he seemed to thrive on conflict. It was inexplicable.” Or so she thought. Sebastian was eventually diagnosed with Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). “We were devastated,” says Alice. “We knew this would affect his whole life if we didn’t get a handle on redirecting the behavior immediately.”
Both Alice and her husband worked diligently with specialists and used whatever resources they could get to help their son manage his behavior. They were careful to reinforce what he was learning in their home environment. Among the most effective strategies? Alice always had pets in her home.
“Our son always had cats in his life and showed great love and empathy for them,” Alice says. “He is very bonded with the cat and takes responsibility for providing him with food and water.”
Eventually, Sebastian asked for a dog. “We felt [it] would be a positive experience, but because of the level of responsibility we let him know he would be required to show us that he was mature enough to care for a dog properly,” Alice says. “Our son really showed he was ready for it. We searched for our dog as a family, and after a couple of months looking, we discovered our girl at the Humane Society.” The two have been inseparable ever since.
Dogs and Social-Emotional Skills
Having a dog in your home can teach a breadth of social and emotional learning (SEL) skills. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines social and emotional learning as “the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”
Whether or not your child is atypical, having those skills in your personal toolkit is essential for your child’s development.
A recent study published in the Journal of Pediatric Research found that owning, walking and playing with a family dog could encourage a toddler’s social and emotional development. In fact, toddlers from dog-owning families in the study were “30% less likely to have conduct and peer problems in comparison to preschoolers from families who didn’t own dogs,” according to the research.
According to HelpGuide.org, an online evidence-based resource for mental health, dog ownership has been linked to responsibility, positive identity, empathy and trust. And, based on their research, the positive influence of pets on development was greatest just before adolescence.
Alice noticed a change in Sebastian almost immediately. He stopped having outbursts in school, and developed a sense of responsibility by having a regular feeding and walking routine with his furry friend, an important diversion to redirect the need for conflict.
“I think pets are especially important for atypical children because of their intrinsic kindness and unconditional love towards their humans,” Alice says. “There’s no question that she does help our son to regulate emotionally and provide him with support.”
Project Positive Assertive Cooperative Kids (PACK) studied a 12-week cognitive-behavioral intervention using canine-assisted intervention (CAI) with a group of children with ADHD. Across the board, their studies found that the groups who interacted with dogs reported “improvements in children’s social skills, prosocial behaviors, and problematic behaviors… children who received the CAI model exhibited greater reductions in the severity of ADHD symptoms than did children who received cognitive-behavioral therapy without CAI.”
For Alice, she saw her son embrace empathy, responsibility and, of course, unconditional love. “He loves his pets, and that sense of unconditional connection is important for a child who is constantly falling in and out of favor with his peers based on his behavior,” says Alice. “Our dog provides consistency and support, absolutely.”
*All names in this story have been changed.