Indeed, researchers and mental health professionals say there is a real need for more research into how animal-assisted interventions of all kinds can help children. Dr. Meints also hopes to see more controlled trials as well as longer-term studies that can answer questions about how often children should attend dog-assisted therapy sessions and for how long. There are also big questions about how important it is for children to be able to touch the dog during sessions, or whether it’s enough just for them to be in the presence of the animal, she said, and whether whether group or individual therapy is better.
As tempting as it may be for parents like me to extrapolate, there’s a big difference between dog therapy and the kinds of unpredictable interactions kids and pets have when they’re just hanging out at home together. (Although research has shown that owning a dog can be good for the psychological development of children.)
“There’s a difference between a clothed animal and a pet,” said Dr. Arun Handa, an attending psychiatrist in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “That being said, it’s not unreasonable that pets can provide some kind of comfort and support. »
Regardless of the setting, children need to learn how to interact with dogs, and the American Academy of Pediatrics offers parents advice on choosing and living with a pet. The children in the new study were reminded before the sessions not to kiss, hug or hug their therapy dogs in any way, and were always supervised by adults. The team looked for signs that the dogs were upset, such as licking their noses, moving their bodies or heads away, or yawning repeatedly, and ended any sessions in which the dogs appeared tired or as if do not motivate more participate.
I can attest that at home, this kind of training is underway. Sometimes I have to remind my sons to give Annie her space; other times it is she who needs to be reminded. But more often than not, my children and my dog seem to share an emotional understanding that I can’t help but feel is good for them.
“Animals provide this unconditional love,” Dr. Handa said, “and come from a place of non-judgmental support. »