When I was a child, I had a golden retriever named Genesis. Most of my cousins and friends were terrified of his stature, but I found his presence and interactions with me therapeutic in the truest form.
He would sit next to me as I did my homework, waiting patiently to be rubbed. When I was sad, he would lay his head in my lap, unsolicited, and after petting him, I could feel some of my sadness dissipate.
It was not until I went to college and witnessed a group of students bringing dogs into the library during finals that I felt the therapeutic impact Genesis had on me was validated. It was then that I began to understand the full impact of what dogs can do for mental and emotional stabilization for myself and others.
Now, dogs are being utilized for therapy in many different capacities nationwide.
So what is a therapy dog?
Therapy dogs can often be confused with service dogs. However, the main difference between the two is that service dogs are “trained to perform tasks for a person with a disability” as opposed to therapy dogs that are “trained to provide affection and comfort to people”(K9 Partners for Patriots, 2017).
Therapy dogs are being utilized in nursing homes to reduce or ease the adverse effects that Alzheimer’s disease has on a patient. They are also used to relieve stress in high-anxiety situations like finals for college students. Therapy dogs help provide emotional regulation for people who have undergone different types of trauma. Additionally, they aid in interventions that benefit children with disabilities socially, physically, and emotionally.
“Recent research indicates that youth with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) show increases in prosocial behaviors in the presence of animals, yet few studies have examined the effects of incorporating animals into treatments” (Becker, 2017). Many studies show therapy dogs can enhance the social skills of students with autism, as well.
At the iCan Dream Center, we recognize the benefits that therapy dogs can contribute to students we serve. In 2018, our iCan Dream Center family expanded with our Labradoodle therapy dog named Ella.
Ella has benefited our students in many ways. We have students who experience heightened levels of anger due to inconsistencies in schedule or because of certain social situations. Ella has provided these particular students with an emotional outlet and helps them learn additional coping skills to deal with their emotions.
Ella is also present in the classroom during academic activities like reading. In different experiments of therapy dogs in schools, results are showing “improvement in both reading skills and attitudes towards reading when students read in the presence of a therapy dog” (Kirnan, 2015).
Not only does Ella assist our students in regulating their emotions, but she also promotes leadership and responsibility among our students. They take turns feeding and walking Ella, which in turn encourages the students to communicate with each other and staff more. We have even seen our students who struggle with speech and language vocalizing commands such as “sit”.
Therapy dogs are helping students all over the nation, and we are proud to have Ella’s friendly presence at iCan Dream Center.