Animal Assisted Therapy for Kids with ADHD

July 12, 2010 by Dr.Yannick Pauli

Natural treatment for ADHD is now going to the dogs, in a manner of speaking. Child and adolescent psychiatrists in some parts of Europe, the United States, and Australia have been trying animal assisted therapy (AAT) on children with ADHD. This innovative approach makes use of furry, four-legged friends to help children manage their ADHD symptoms, and it is proving to be just as effective as more traditional treatments.

What is animal-assisted therapy?

Animals have been used for therapeutic purposes since the 1700s, but only recently did the therapeutic process become more streamlined and organized. Animal-assisted involves far more than just petting and socializing with animals.  Like conventional therapy, AAT interactions are individualized, goal-oriented treatments directed by a qualified professional. What makes it different is the presence of animals, which serve as teaching aids and help the child warm up to the therapist and the therapeutic process.

At the start of therapy, the therapist interviews the child and family and takes note of his or her social, emotional, cognitive, and physical state. This helps him or her choose the right techniques to achieve certain therapy goals.  During each session, the child gets to interact with an animal under the therapist’s supervision, who takes note of any improvements or unusual responses.

How can animal-assisted therapy help kids with ADHD?

AAT can address the emotional, behavioral, and social components of ADHD.  Let’s say that an ADHD child is going through a parent’s divorce and has been throwing tantrums as a result.  Having an animal around will make it easier for the therapist to divine the problem and the next best step to take.  For instance, the child can be asked to tell the rabbit what happened and how he or she feels.  Most children feel comfortable with opening up to animals and telling them things they would not reveal to an adult or a stranger. In terms of healing troubled emotions, the goals of AAT are the same as any therapy, except the techniques involve the comforting presence of animals.

AAT sessions can also be done in groups, which is helpful in addressing behavioral symptoms and teaching kids how to socialize. It is not uncommon for children in group therapy to learn to wait their turn, control their impulses, and become more patient.   As for children who feel uncomfortable with human emotions or physical contact, therapists observe that they become more affectionate with dogs and other domestic animals.  However, it is not yet certain if they can apply these learned behaviors during human interactions.

Who can benefit from animal-assisted therapy?

Most kids love animals, but not all can benefit from animal-assisted therapy.  For children with a phobia for certain animals, this approach will prove to be more traumatizing than therapeutic. Children with allergies to animal fur may also experience discomfort during sessions.  And as with all therapeutic approaches, there are just some children who cannot be helped by AAT.

If, on the other hand, your child enjoys playing with furry friends and little critters, AAT may teach him or her to keep ADHD symptoms under control.   You can find an animal-assisted therapist by visiting deltasociety.org.