Gone are the days of class pets; with the rise in allergies in young children, most schools have banned all furry friends from the classroom. The class pet was meant to teach children about responsibility but today animals are helping in different ways.
Therapy dogs are used in a variety of settings to bring joy and comfort to sick children. General requirements call for dogs to be at least one year of age, be in good health, respond to general obedience commands, walk on a leash without pulling, engage well with other dogs, and remain calm in the presence of novel people and settings, for example refrain from jumping, licking, or becoming overly excited. Training, registration, or certification depends on the organization with which the dog and handler are involved.
In a hospital or long-term care facility, the goal of introducing therapy dogs to children is to offer companionship for patients who are lonely and may miss their own pets at home. A visit from a therapy dog also breaks up the monotony of the day and reduces stress and other negative ailments incurred by medical treatments.
The Good Dog Foundation, with facilities in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, boasts on its website its strict certification standards and annual re-certification process for both handlers and dogs. Teams must participate in an eleven-session certification course and undergo an assessment to be re-certified each year. Once certified, handler and dog teams are connected with any of the 315 locations the foundation serves.
Some Good Dog teams participated in a 2012 research study exploring the impact of certified therapy dogs on patients receiving chemotherapy and radiation treatments for cancer. As reported on The Good Dog Foundation website, the results, which will be published in a peer-reviewed journal this year, showed a positive impact on the patients' health and well-being.
Service dogs are also beneficial for children with a variety of disabilities or recurring health conditions, either to alert of an impending health emergency, such as low blood sugar or a seizure, or to provide companionship and develop social skills. It's important to know the role the service dog is trained to play and to match the child's needs accordingly.
Paws With A Cause, for example, trains and provides service dogs who assist people with autism, seizures, physical disabilities, or those who are deaf or hearing impaired, but explicitly states on its website it does not provide dogs for the management of mental health conditions, diabetes, to assist the blind or vision impaired, or to navigate people from dangerous or hazardous situations.
For children with autism, the goal of a service dog is often to foster independence in the child and to increase social exchanges and language skills. A service dog can also provide comfort during transitions or behavioral outbursts.
Highland Canine Training, LLC, in North Carolina, offers Assistance Dogs for Autism, a program that matches a dog to a child with autism based on his specific needs. The benefits of these matches are seen through testimonials from families. One mother is grateful for her daughter's service dog because she now sleeps through the night with her dog by her side. Another mother credits her daughter's service dog with reducing anxiety so much she is now able to join after-school activities.
Some public libraries and schools have embraced man's best friend as an educational tool. Dogs are used as a nonjudgmental audience for a child learning to read. Children are often excited when in the company of these dogs and don't get down on themselves if they make a mistake.
Intermountain Therapy Animals, based in Salt Lake City, Utah, provides R.E.A.D. (Reading Education Assistance Dogs) programs both nationally and across the globe. The organization asks handlers to register their dogs as therapy dogs, complete an orientation and assessment, and offers connections to affiliate R.E.A.D programs and coordinators.
Dr. Lori Friesen, of the University of Alberta, has published a number of articles on the use of dogs to increase literacy skills in children. Through her research, which is cited on the ITA website, she credits the presence of dogs in the classroom with easing children's apprehension about reading and increasing motivation, which ultimately boosts literacy skills.
Most recently, comfort dogs made headlines as a group from Lutheran Church Charities made the trip from Illinois to Newtown, Connecticut to provide relief for a community so deeply hurt. K-9 Parish Comfort Dog Ministry jumped to action at the first news of tragedy; they arrived in Newtown the day after the shooting and remain there today, providing support for the children and residents of a town forever changed. In addition to the actual comfort dogs who are available, the organization has donated stuffed animals to the children in town as an additional means of comfort.
Many of these service or therapy dogs are provided at no cost to the recipient, though the price of preparing and placing one of these dogs can be steep.
Paws With A Cause, for example, cites a $30,000 total cost to train and place one of their service dogs. Clients are encouraged to participate in the fundraising necessary to cover this cost though they are not required to do so. Lutheran Church Charities states on its website that it does not solicit donations from those they serve, but rather the general community to cover the cost of transportation, lodging, and food for the many trips they take each year. Many of the organizations mentioned accept donations or sponsorships through their websites.
Many anecdotal reports show positive interactions between dogs and children, with academic, social, and even physical benefits noted in a number of cases. As research continues to show the positive impact a dog can have on a child, it's no doubt man's best friend will remain a popular choice during difficult times.