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Animals play key role for kids with special needs

Published on: September 01, 2009

It may come as no surprise that animals have an increasing presence in therapeutic care for kids with disabilities. After all, most of us have experienced our own form of animal therapy: Cuddle a baby kitten and all seems right with the world. A few minutes on the floor with a dog can make the strain of daily life melt away. For a child with a disability, spending time with an animal -- either in a relaxed environment or in a therapy setting -- can provide a similar respite from what at times may be a stressful existence. Plus, everyone loves animal fun and it can be great for the whole family!

Yet the benefits go far beyond the emotional lift that an animal can provide.

Horseback riding helps kids with everything from strength and balance to improved verbal skills and visual-spatial perception. Brushing a dog allows a child who is sensitive to touch to connect physically in a pain-free way, while putting on a dog's collar can help build fine-motor skills. Animals also provide enormous incentive to kids and can make the hard work of physical or other therapies seem more like play.

Horses take children "to the next level"
Walk directly from the parking lot at Little Bit Therapeutic Riding Center to the outdoor arena where the sport riding lessons take place, and you'd never know there was anything unusual about the facility. You'd simply see very competent riders astride fit and graceful horses.

Horses are great equalizers, says Kathy Alm, Little Bit's executive director. "It's not about who does and doesn't have disabilities. It's about how well you can ride a horse."

Many of the equestrians at the Woodinville-based center compete, and the facility even has a few Paralympic hopefuls (Olympics competition for athletes with disabilities).

Hippotherapy is where most of Little Bit's clientele begin. It involves an intensive one-on-one riding session with a licensed physical therapist. The horse's gait moves the rider's pelvis in a motion similar to normal, upright walking. The horse can also be used as a therapy tool in other ways, with the rider throwing and catching balls over the horse's head, or kneeling on the animal's back and stretching out his limbs.

"We see muscles get stronger, kids begin to sit upright and some begin to walk for the first time," Alm says. "Mind you, they're doing physical therapy as well. This isn't a miracle cure. But there is such a significant impact when they start riding. It takes them to the next level."

Alm lists additional benefits that seem less obvious, such as improved reasoning skills, increased ability to concentrate, and a greater awareness of and interest in the world around them. She tells of one child who spoke his very first sentence after his initial assessment ride at Little Bit. "That's anecdotal," she says, "but it's not unique. It happens all the time."

Kristin Miller's son Christopher has Williams Syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes a variety of developmental and health problems. Christopher, who is now 9, began riding five years ago. "The ability to move with the motion of the horse has really carried over into the rest of his life," says Miller, who lives in Redmond. "He started being able to walk up and down stairs. He could balance well enough to learn to ride a two-wheeler at the same time that other kids did, and many kids with Williams Syndrome never get that level of balance." Miller was also impressed with her son's ability to listen to his instructor in the arena and follow directions. "It's huge for a kid who also has attention issues," she says.

Not enough research has been done to determine exactly why horseback riding may help a child focus or speak his first sentence. Yet according to Alm, most riders come to Little Bit on their doctor's recommendation. "More and more doctors are understanding what hippotherapy can do for some of their clients," she says.

What is clear is that the kids love spending time with the horses. And Alm says that the relationship goes both ways. "I've seen horses lift their noses over the railing to greet the rider," she says. "I've seen horses shift their weight to catch the rider. I've seen those same horses be as challenging as anything when there's a rider without disabilities on their back."

Children with disabilities also benefit from Little Bit's built-in social community, something that may elude them elsewhere. "People find a level of acceptance here that they don't find out in the world," Alm says. "No one worries when someone talks more slowly and has trouble finding a word. No one worries if someone drags a leg. It's just accepted."

Little Bit's programs have become so popular that the facility now has a two-year waiting list for new families. In response, the organization is undergoing a feasibility study to determine whether it can afford a larger facility. According to Alm, it's critical to get kids riding early to help them achieve developmental milestones.

Dogs provide therapy -- and friendship
Each week, Becky Bishop, owner of Puppy Manners Family Dog School, drives her chocolate Labrador retriever Moose to Woodmoor Elementary School in Bothell, where the pair works in a class for kids with special needs. They bring along a leash and a dog brush. "The kids with autism are very sensitive to touch," she says. They don't like to touch the dogs but they like to interact with them. Through the brushing, they really connect."

After grooming Moose, a student leashes up the dog and the three walk to the front office, where Bishop asks him to introduce himself and the dog. Part of the goal is to get the child to speak. "Kids with autism don't normally like to go to the office and say 'My name is Michael'," she says. "They're much more willing if a dog can go with them."

For kids with cerebral palsy, Moose provides an incentive to stretch. The therapist will take a child out of her wheelchair, and have the dog lie with her on the floor. Bishop explains the reaction of one child she works with: "We'll put Moose just a bit beyond the child's reach, and she'll stretch out on her own to reach for the dog. The therapist says this is the only time she'll do it on her own."

Moose is a therapy dog, providing therapeutic support to people in a wide variety of ways. Uses for dogs in therapy are limited only by the imagination, says Laura Hardman, Animal Assisted Therapy provider and owner of Seattle-based Sirius Healing. "Dogs can be used to steady an individual when they're walking," or to support a person getting up from a seated position, she says. "Kids may pet or comb the dog to exercise an arm, or throw a ball for the dog. Giving verbal commands to the dog helps with speech."

Bishop believes the magic that Moose is able to create with kids comes in part from his unconditional acceptance. "The kids feel safe with the dogs on an emotional level," she says. "The dogs take you as you are and have no expectations of you."

That acceptance is something Barbara Lock's daughter Sarahgene gets from her 76-pound yellow Lab, Regis. Sarahgene, who lives with her family in Seattle, has static diffuse encephalopathy, a neurological disorder occurring before or at birth. Some of the areas in which she struggles include gross and fine motor skills, balance, muscle tone and social communication. "If she's having a hard evening," Lock says, "she'll say 'Regis, let's go,' and she'll go into her bedroom and talk with him and cuddle him."

Unlike Moose, Regis is a "service dog." He has been trained to assist Sarahgene with things that she may struggle to -- or be unable to -- accomplish on her own. Service dogs (also known as "assistance dogs") are not considered pets, and federal laws protect the rights of individuals with disabilities to bring their service animals into public places.

The most commonly known type of service dog is the guide dog, trained to aid a blind person. Yet while an individual must be 16 years of age to obtain a guide dog, many service dogs are trained to help younger children in other areas. A dog might notify a deaf child when the doorbell rings, pull a child in a wheelchair or alert the parent if a child is about to have a seizure.

One of the things Regis does for 12-year-old Sarahgene is provide her with a bridge to the rest of the world. "Peer relationships are difficult for her," Lock says. "She doesn't understand personal space and she doesn't [interact] in appropriate ways." Regis helps change the dynamic, she adds. "He breaks down social barriers by serving as the focal point. He makes her blend in more and be more tolerated and accepted."

Sarahgene also rides horses at Little Bit, and Lock sees a correlation between the benefits both animals provide her daughter. "I think they give her a lot of centering, both inner and physical," she says. "The horse has the deep, steady gait, and the dog has the steady gait at her side. Both are calming to her, and she seeks them out where she wouldn't seek out people."

Families frequently say that the benefits of having an animal in the home reach well beyond the child with special needs, and Lock's family is no exception. Barbara Lock believes they have all gained from Regis' presence in their home. In fact, her grown children are currently co-raising a puppy from the agency that placed Regis with them.

Laura Fine-Morrison is a Seattle freelance writer and mother.


  • Delta Society, Bellevue. Organization devoted to improving health and well-being through service and therapy animals. 425-226-7357 

Local therapeutic riding centers:

  • Little Bit Therapeutic Riding Center, Woodinville. Hippotherapy and riding instruction for children and adults with special needs. 425-882-1554 
  • Camp Berachah, Auburn. A Christian riding facility providing hippotherapy for kids and adults, and summer camp for kids. 1-800-859-CAMP 
  • Hawk Ridge Therapeutic Riding Center, Fall City. A recreational place where people with special needs can learn to ride a horse. 425-222-0080

Service/assistance dog resources: (Many of these organizations also are looking for people interested in becoming puppy raisers.)

If you have a well-mannered dog and would like to volunteer as a dog/handler team, contact the following individuals for more information:

Training puppies for service work all in the family

Hanford is the third dog at Anna-Kate Hard's house in as many years. It's not that the Hards don't like their pets. Rather, they are puppy raisers, pouring time and love into animals they hope will one day become guide dogs for the blind.

"My brother got us into it," Anna-Kate says. "He was watching TV after 9/11, and saw this blind man running down all these stairs with a guide dog. He thought this could be a good way to help other people."

The family, who lives in Newcastle, found a local puppy raisers' group through Guide Dogs for the Blind, and after three months of training, the Hards received their first puppy. "It's really fun when you first get the dog," Anna-Kate recalls. "They put this cute little puppy in your arms and say, 'Train it well.'"

Hanford is the first dog that 10-year-old Anna-Kate is primarily responsible for raising. "I teach him things like potty training, basic commands, how to be obedient, not to chew and not to lick, because the blind person might not really like that." She also exposes Hanford to different noises and takes him shopping with her. When he gets a little older, the dog will join her part-time at school.

At some point between the age of 15 and 18 months, Hanford will leave the Hard family. He'll undergo an additional six months of training and screening at Guide Dogs for the Blind's "puppy college." If he makes the grade, Hanford will be nearly 2 years old before he is placed in his permanent home.

For Anna-Kate, parting with the dog is the most difficult part: "You try not to bond with the dog, but after 15 or 18 months you don't want to give it back." It helped, however, when Anna-Kate and her family recently met the blind owner of their first dog, Axel.

"Once we met Melody, it was all worth it," Anna-Kate says. "She calls us and tells us how he's doing, and it's really great."

When asked if her family would raise another dog after Hanford, Anna-Kate replies: "I think we will. It's really a good experience, and it's fun. My whole family helps with the dogs, and we all just love it."


Originally published in the September, 2005 print edition of ParentMap.


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