...special needs, who may struggle with social interaction and social isolation, this friendly face is a welcome sight. Telly’s patient, non-judgmental nature and propensity to provide unconditional love wins her many friends quickly.
Telly is a professional therapy dog that works primarily with children and youth, including those with special needs. She works alongside her human co-therapist, Maureen, in helping children and youth learn critical social emotional skills. This is different from merely having a pet at home or volunteer pets that do casual visits to beneficiaries in hospitals/Voluntary Welfare Organisations (VWOs). What Telly and Maureen does is known as animal assisted therapy (AAT). AAT is defined as a goal directed intervention whereby a specially trained animal is incorporated as an integral part of the therapeutic process, promoting improvement in human physical, social, emotional or cognitive functioning.
Eight year old Jarene, who has Moebius Syndrome, thinks of Telly as a very cool friend. Jarene looks forward to therapy sessions where she gets to “play” with Telly. Some of Jarene’s favourite activities include doing tricks with Telly, feeding Telly lots of treats and playing Hide and Seek with Telly. More than just fun and games, these facilitated therapeutic activities are helping Jarene to grow in confidence as she learns critical social interaction skills, communication, empathy, patience and caring behaviours. A lot of these skills can be translated to social interaction with her peers. Telly patiently helps Jarene to practice these skills in a safe, non-threatening atmosphere. This is in line with the observation by Dr Olga Solomon (2010) on how dogs are able to help children with special needs to “practice nonlinguistic but highly social actions and to coordinate these actions with others, human and canine”.
Sally, Jarene’s mother, quipped, “The interaction with Telly gave Jarene an experience of equal footed friendship. She learns how to be affectionate yet assertive with a friend through this interaction. This opportunity is sometimes missing in real social settings with her own peers. Humans are less forgiving and quick to judge. Without a given social space for Jarene to learn how to be a friend, how then can we expect her to develop appropriate social skills? Animal Assisted Therapy has helped to provide part of that space for Jarene to “practice” friendship and communication skills and hopefully translate that outside of her therapy context.”
On top of being patient and non-judgmental, another reason that dogs are able to reach out to kids with special needs is because they provide a strong multi-sensory stimulus that is highly engaging. Researchers Redefer and Goodman (1989) noted that, “Animals (usually dogs) have potential assets that humans lack. To combat the low sensory and affective arousal levels of autistic children, they present powerful multi-sensory stimulus—strong clear sounds, a vivid visual impression, a special smell, and an innovation to touch. They also are demanding—likely to follow, lick, and bark at the rejecting child. And their simple, repetitive nonverbal actions are easy to decode.” Even without words, animals are often able to engage and connect with people with special needs. A dog is truly more than a man’s best friend.
Redefer, L. A., & Goodman, J. F. (1989). Brief report: Pet-facilitated therapy with
autistic children. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 19, 461-467. doi:10.1007/BF02212943
Solomon, O. (2010). What a dog can do: Children with autism and therapy dogs in social interaction. Journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology, 38(1), 143-166. doi:10.1111/j.1548-1352.2010.01085.x