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Animal Therapy for Children (and Parents)

Posted by Claudia M Gold  April 1, 2012 12:41 PM

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Recently there was a beautiful article, Wonder Dog , in the New York Times magazine about an emotionally troubled boy who was helped significantly by a devoted dog. I thought about this story this past week when my beloved dog, a lab-border collie mix who we adopted 9 years ago at the age of two , died rather suddenly. It turns out he had a tumor on his spleen and bled internally-at least it was quick and painless.

The thing is- he really helped me out with my emotional regulation, especially in my role as mother to my daughter, who as a young teenager had an incredible capacity to push my buttons. In the interests of full disclosure, I also had a lot of help from a wonderful therapist in understanding the roots of this issue. But Jasper was there with us on the front lines.

Whenever we would get into any kind of conflict and I would start to raise my voice, Jasper would immediately get up from his dog bed and come and lie right next to me. At once I would feel calm. My breathing slowed and I am quite sure my blood pressure went down. Rather than continue to butt heads with her, I would be able to think more clearly about what was happening and to reflect on the meaning of her behavior. Often I could identify some event in her life that was causing her stress and anxiety that she was now taking out on me. I was able to remain calm in the face of assault. Jasper helped me to much more rapidly defuse these encounters.

Now that he is gone, I think of his beautiful soulful eyes and his oh-so soft head, and I hope that I have internalized his presence enough that I can just think of him to gain that calm feeling. My daughter is older now and she herself has learned to regulate her own emotions. Part of this is simply development and maturation. But to some degree I believe she has learned this from me, and I in turn learned it in part from Jasper.

In my book, Keeping Your Child in Mind, I talk about how parents themselves need to find ways to manage their own emotions in order to be present with their children in a way that promotes healthy development. This involves having someone to hold them in mind, be it a spouse, friend, family member or therapist. I should add animals to that list.

The therapeutic value of animals for children is well known. I often recommend horseback riding as an activity for children with problems of emotional regulation. Child psychiatrist Bruce Perry, in his description of the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics that he developed for working with traumatized children, writes:

Dogs have the capacity to provide the unconditional accepting and repetitive nurturing experiences required to help some of these children.
The wonderful documentary film Buck, clearly demonstrates how Buck's close relationship with horses has helped him to recover from the severe physical and emotional abuse he experienced as a child. He now uses this experience to help others. In training workshops he runs all over the country he shows the importance of managing your own emotions in order to be present with your horse in a way that helps him to manage his. It's an amazingly similar concept to my book!

If your child wants a dog, and you worry that you will "get stuck" taking care of it, remember that the dog can be a wonderful asset for the whole family. I know it will take our family a long time to heal from this terrible loss. I would often say to Jasper, "You are truly a good person ( as dog)." I hope that in writing this I can to some degree immortalize his gifts to us.
Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

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About the author

Claudia M. Gold, M.D. is a pediatrician and author of Keeping Your Child in Mind: Overcoming Defiance, Tantrums, and Other Everyday Behavior Problems by Seeing the World Through Your Child's More »

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