By Naimah Shaw

Perhaps it is the particular way a dog wags his tail and fondly licks your face when you return or the manner in which your cat patiently climbs to rest with you, the satisfaction of grooming your horse after frolicking together or the excited swimming of the fish when you feed them; whatever it is, animals allude to greater self-esteem for children but especially for those with special needs.

In today’s ever evolving society, it is proven that animals who provide therapeutic support to families are filling a void often overlooked.

Dogs, in particular, have long since been considered man’s best friend and often deemed his most loyal partner and confidante.  This becomes very clear when talking to Allison, who suffers from moderate autism and uses her dog solely to calm her when she becomes agitated in an effort to de-escalate the possibility of self-harm. Her dog, Beth, responds to these situations by placing her weight against her owner’s leg or gently laying across her lap, giving Allison the opportunity to pet her. Beth was specifically trained to detect the precursors of the sensory processing disorders that plague Allison and to provide the relief. Allison also enjoys reading to her dog even more than she enjoys reading to her siblings because in her own words, “the dog doesn’t judge me if I don’t know the word so I can practice over and over”. Her parents agree that in the year that she has had the dog, she has not only learned empathy for a non-verbal being but she has also gained a better self-esteem through the love that has been showered upon her by her therapy dog.

Apart from helping children, these dogs are also helping to forge better home environments as parents too are benefiting immensely. When I sat down to chat with Gisel Elsheikh, her trusty 65-pound German Shepherd donning the US Air Force badge and a  “SERVICE DOG” sign. She noted that traumatic situations in her past which have since led to post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and ultimately non-epileptic seizures were the factors behind her resolve to find therapy and calmness through daily interactions with her dog, Casey. It was quite visible that Casey would become aroused when her owner became worked up around a particular issue. Her ability to sense a heightened heart rate and respond to it with the quiet assurance of a whimper denoting “I’m here for you” was unparalleled. Her stance was definitely one reminiscent of a soldier doing their task as she stood there, poised in nature, her playful dog mannerisms subdued. Elsheikh’s daughter, a neurofibromatosis survivor will also utilize the use of a service dog for sight when she is older. Elsheikh notes that having a service dog is a tremendous responsibility which feels like adding a new family member and that it should not be taken lightly. When asked if the same service dog can work for both her and her daughter, Elsheikh was quick to note that just like humans trained with specific tasks; dogs are also trained with their tasks that make them incapable of performing different services to everyone unless otherwise specifically trained to do so.

While doing research, I found that the 5 Top Benefits of Having Pets for Special Needs Children are:

1. They teach children values and empathy Learning how to shower love on a non- verbal animal while figuring out their cues is something every child should definitely learn. As adults take on the bigger tasks, children can also be tasked with the responsibility of feeding and walking their pets. They can even help select treats and other accessories. Helping your child choose items for their pet also instills in them kindness and the desire to shop for someone other than themselves.

2. They help with learning Most people are aware of therapy dogs which are used to assist children with developmental or learning problems. Similarly, many classrooms have a pet such as a hamster, fish or a turtle to not only give children first hand insight into caring for a pet but they also utilize their reading time to sit next to the designated class pet and read to him/her. This has been proven to dramatically increase reading scores, social and communication skills and a notable improvement in behavior as well. Children with a pet are more diligent in accomplishing tasks faster, especially when the pet is used as a reward for completion of a task. For example, a child may be awarded 20 minutes to walk a pet if their book report is done.

3. Pets encourage nurturing This is a quality that is not simply manifested as an adult but rather a quality that has to be ingrained in a child throughout his childhood.  For children suffering from special needs, this can be especially challenging. However, having pets is a sure way to help children become natural caregivers. Nurturing animals is said to be especially important for boys who do not necessarily nurture dolls the same way little girls do.

4. Mood Children who have a designated pet definitely have better attitudes and exude a different sense of positivity than children without a pet. The Brain Balance Achievement Center explains that, “The presence of a pet can reduce the amounts of cortisol, a stress-response hormone produced by an autistic child upon waking in the morning. The amount of cortisol in a waking autistic child decreased from 58 percent to 10 percent when a service dog was present. When the dog was taken away for a short while, the amount of cortisol increased to 48 percent.”

5. HealthResearch has shown that pet ownership leads to lower blood pressure and heart rate which therefore correlates to the idea that this is something that is relaxing and enjoyable.

But, how do you choose the right pet? Ensure that all of the necessary factors have been taken into consideration. Some key things to consider are:

1. Who will feed/walk/groom the pet?

2. Is anyone allergic to it?

3. Do our housing rules facilitate it?

4. Do we have the space?

5. Do we have the time to allot to pet care?

It is evident that pets provide children and families with the ability to better cope when dealing with special needs but before making the critical decision to own a pet, one has to be certain they are ready to take on the additional responsibilities that will ensue.

Naimah Shaw is a Freelance Writer, Copywriter, Blogger and homeschool mom of four who has lived in Evans for almost a decade. Prior to that, she graduated with a Masters of Science in Information Technology and taught computer programming for a few years at local colleges.

This article appears in the October 2017 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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