Transforming children's livesTM


Animals Help Children Overcome Challenges

From dogs to horses, they're being used by innovative therapists to calm, motivate and teach kids  

Beth Arky

Child Mind Institute

No child relishes a trip to the dentist. But for one like Caroline, an autistic 7-year-old who has sensory processing issues, even a routine visit can be a traumatic event. Two years ago, "all of the different sounds and smells, along with the closeness of the people, really threw her over the edge," recalls her mother, Jaime. Caroline was so frightened when her chair was reclined that she "jumped over the back of it and ran out to the parking lot," Jaime says. "We tried to bring her back in but she was so upset that the dentist couldn't do anything."

When the Coral Gables, Florida, mom told Caroline's occupational therapist, Willow Rossi, about the episode, Rossi had a thought: When she worked with Caroline she included her black Lab Tippy, who is what's called a facility dog. Tippy seemed to help Caroline stay calm, so why not have her accompany the girl to her next appointment? Because Tippy is also a certified service dog, she has full access to public places including stores, buses and planes.

It made perfect sense to Jaime: "Overall, Caroline was happier and calmer on the days that she saw Willow and Tippy," she said. Caroline didn't scream, hit or run away as she sometimes did with other therapists. At first, her dentist was reluctant, but after a bit of urging from a determined mom, Tippy was invited to come along. 

It worked. "Caroline willingly walked Tippy into the waiting room and then the exam room," Rossi says. "Tippy lay with her on the chair throughout the exam. Although Caroline was still anxious, she did it!"

What is a facility dog?

A therapist like Rossi uses a facility dog—often described as a "therapy dog," which is actually an umbrella term—as a modality, or tool, to help a child attain her goals. Tippy serves as a huge motivator, making therapy both fun and rewarding for children with a wide range of challenges, including Down syndrome, learning disabilities, ADHD, and autism. She even coaxes older children who may be bored by the repetition of therapy to attend sessions.  

Facility Dog Tippy
Facility dog Tippy

For instance, if Rossi is working on fine motor skills, she might have a child brush Tippy's teeth or coat, or use tongs to feed her. The "bug game" involves picking yarn or pom pom "fleas" off the patient pup's back. Because the child must hold the container for the "fleas," the exercise also works on bilateral coordination—the ability to use both sides of the body simultaneously.

Another fine motor task that also increases core (trunk) strength involves sit-ups, with the child reaching back over his head to pick up and hand Tippy a treat each time he rolls down to the floor. This also works on sensory processing, since "touching a slimy dog mouth is a tough task when you have tactile defensiveness," Rossi says. Tippy also loves to hide in the ball pit, encouraging kids to dig down to find her. They don't have to know they're getting tactile input and increased body awareness; it just adds to the fun.

If Rossi wants to work on sequencing, following directions and memory, she'll have the child carry out a sequence of commands for the retriever. In the next session, she'll see if the child can remember them, and then add more. "Dogs are used to a powerful adult voice," Rossi says, "but because Tippy worked with small children growing up, she will even respond to children's whispers," which makes them feel proud and self-confident.

Facility dogs are just one of myriad animals being used by an increasing number of clinicians and therapists to help kids with developmental, learning and behavioral challenges. Dogs have been trained for many different roles, from helping reluctant readers, who feel more comfortable reading aloud to a patient, nonjudgmental animal, to providing solace to those who have been through a disaster, such as the survivors and family members of the victims of the Sandy Hook school shootings. Dogs, cats and other pets can be trained for visits to hospitals, nursing homes and child welfare facilities, where they can give and receive affection, providing pleasure to the sick and lonely. Some courts are using dogs trained to comfort abused children facing the ordeal of testifying—and to give them a positive memory to have of the experience.

Horsing around

Horses also play a key role in this movement. Hippotherapy, derived from the Greek word "hippos" for "horse," is a treatment strategy used by physical, occupational, and speech and language therapists in a one-to-one treatment session. It may be used to help those from as young as 18 months to adults with developmental delays, brain injuries, learning disabilities, sensory issues, autism and other challenges. 


There's also therapeutic riding, supervised by a certified instructor, which builds on the natural enjoyment of riding and caring for a horse to set social, emotional and physical goals for children as they learn to sit properly in the saddle, use reins to command the horse, and ride at a walk and then a bouncy trot that often leaves them smiling, if not laughing.

GallopNYC offers both programs; it works with a licensed physical therapist who only provides hippotherapy, as well as certified therapeutic riding instructors. "Most are people with horse backgrounds, some with conventional riding instruction experience," says Peter Byrne, Gallop's program director. "But all must pass rigorous examinations for horseback riding and teaching special needs children on a horse." Along with the instructor, the therapeutic program requires three volunteers: one who leads the horse and two "side-walkers" who flank the rider, holding the legs of less able or confident ones and remaining close to spot those who can ride more independently.

Eight-year-old Rose is one of Gallop's happy trotters. When the Brooklyn girl was diagnosed at 3 with mild sensory processing issues and low muscle tone in her hands and core, it only took one trip to the stable for her mother, Catherine, to sign her up to augment her OT and PT. Five years later, Catherine reports, "Rose is very much in control while riding a horse. Usually a very floppy girl, she sits straight as a door while riding. This gives her great confidence and satisfaction." Even better: the joy Catherine sees in her daughter's face when she interacts with the horses: "She cares deeply about the animals, more so even than other humans." About halfway through her session, Rose takes over the reins. The side-walkers remain but "she doesn't seem to mind," Catherine says. "In fact, most of them are so lovely that she enjoys the conversations she has with them while riding."

According to Gallop, each aspect of the program is designed to benefit participants in particular ways. For instance, grooming, tacking and leading the horse  promote "bonding with and understanding of the animal and increase sensory awareness and a 'connection' to the horse." Varying the pace and direction, such as weaving between cones, "causes the rider to shift his or her weight to maintain position, improving muscle strength, balance and rhythm."

Balls, toys, and stuffed animals add to the equation, Byrne says. "The riders will use the toys to 'play catch' with the side-walkers while the horse is walking," he explains. "This enables the kids to interact with others, follow directions, help develop a sense of balance on the horse, and have fun."

Building confidence

A sense of mastery is also very valuable to kids with diagnoses such as reactive attachment disorder, bipolar, cognitive learning disorders, and autism, says Michael Kaufmann, director of farm and wildlife at Green Chimneys, a therapeutic day school and residential treatment center in Putnam County, New York. "It feels awesome when a horse starts listening to you," he notes. "A 1,500 pound horse is actually going where you want it to go, you can tell your parents, and most of your friends haven't done it."

Mastery Tippy
Tippy gets snacks

But working with horses also teaches kids discipline. "There is a lot of frustration tolerance to learn," Kaufmann says. "You have to earn a certain level of trust and listen to adult instructions. In the barn, there are clear rules and codes of behavior. It's three scoops of grain, not two, not four."

Back on Long Island, mom Elizabeth Mullen says the simple acts of brushing and tacking horses have alleviated daughter Bailey's OCD. "That touch has already calmed her down," Mullen says of her 11-year-old. "It used to take two hours for her to fall asleep. Within three weeks of being with the horses, she was calm enough to fall asleep within a half hour." Of course, little brother Cooper's autism service dog Kirby "definitely helps her as well."

While there is little research to back up the therapeutic claims of these programs, the use of animals in therapy goes back to the beginning of psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud allowed his two chows, Lun and Jo-Fi, to sit in on his sessions, admitting with "complete sincerity that he often depended on Jo-Fi provide him with an assessment of his patient's current mental status." 

Many parents don't need to be convinced. Take Caroline, the girl who needed OT Rossi's facility dog to get through her dental exam. Soon after, the girl received her own service dog, another black Lab named Zumi, to assist with socialization and calming. At first Zumi assumed Tippy's place in the chair. But no longer. These days, Caroline "can go to the dentist with or without Zumi!" Jaime says. She has no doubt who to credit for this breakthrough: a wet-nosed, tail-wagging best friend named Tippy.

Read part I in this three-part series on service animals, Service Dogs Love, Protect and Connect Autistic Kids. 

Published: January 15, 2013

Please help us improve the Symptom Checker!

Click here to share your thoughts about using the tool.