The practice of animal assisted therapy has been growing in research and application. Research shows that the elderly, adults, adolescents, and children benefit from the presence of animals. Therapy animals are found in settings ranging from assisted living to hospitals to residential treatment centers. Here are five key benefits of dogs in a mental health setting with children.
Having a dog around the group home offers new chances for play. Maybe it gets the kids outside to play ball or to go for a walk. It might just be playing and laughing around the house. Not only is having a dog helpful for the kids, it is a great benefit for the staff as well.
Socializing with a dog brings thoughts and feelings into the present moment. This simple interaction lessons worry and anxiety by bringing the focus back from the past or the future into the here-and-now. Mindfulness is a key component in learning to manage anxiety and depression or handle trauma.
Dogs do not care where the kids are, why they are there, or what their diagnosis is; they only care how the kids treat them and they respond in kind without judgement. A dog does not harbor grudges or disappointments and offers plenty of chances for fresh starts.
In an environment where touch is not always acceptable, a dog offers a chance for touch that is calming and helpful. Petting a dog has been shown to decrease stress hormones, lower blood pressure, and regulate breathing. Research also shows that petting a dog releases Oxycontin, a hormone that has been shown to induce feelings of optimism. This helps children suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and has shown promise in treating depression.
Taking the Pressure Off
Even Florence Nightingale recognized that animals were supportive in stressful situations. Having a dog present can make a therapy session more inviting and less stressful for a kid. The kid has an opportunity to talk to the dog or through the dog instead which can be less intimidating than having to speak directly to the therapist.
Adding a dog to a therapeutic team can offer unique and varied benefits. As research continues to expound on the benefits of animal-assisted therapies, therapy animals will most likely be found in more and more settings. However, the greatest affirmation for having an animal in a children’s mental health setting might be the excitement of the children when they see the dog coming through the front door.