Kids With ADHD Benefit From Time With Therapy Dogs

dog therapy

Story at-a-glance -

  • For children struggling with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), visits with a therapy dog may provide effective relief from symptoms
  • The study involved 24 children with ADHD who received group therapy weekly, with or without canine-assisted intervention (CAI), for 12 weeks
  • While children in both groups had declines in the severity of their ADHD symptoms, the declines were greatest in children who received interactions with therapy dogs
  • Children in the CAI group saw improvements sooner than the children in the control group, including improved attention and social skills after only eight weeks of interacting with the therapy dogs

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

For children struggling with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), visits with a therapy dog may provide effective relief from symptoms, according to research from the University of California, Irvine (UCI). In 2015, preliminary results of the study were released, showing that canine-assisted intervention (CAI) was useful for children with ADHD.1

The study involved 24 children with ADHD who received group therapy weekly, with or without CAI, for 12 weeks. Parents reported improvements in children of both groups, including better social skills and prosocial behaviors, and fewer problematic behaviors. But while children in both groups had declines in the severity of their ADHD symptoms, the declines were greatest in children who received interactions with therapy dogs.

First-of-Its-Kind Study Shows Therapy Dogs Help Kids With ADHD

The final outcomes of the study, the first of its kind to look into therapy dogs for children with ADHD, were recently published in the journal Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin,2 showing that children in the CAI group saw improvements sooner than the children in the control group, including improved attention and social skills after only eight weeks of interacting with the therapy dogs.

The CAI group also had fewer behavioral problems than the group without therapy dogs. Sabrina E. B. Schuck, Ph.D., MA, executive director of the UCI Child Development Center, said in a news release:3

“Our finding that dogs can hasten the treatment response is very meaningful … In addition, the fact that parents of the children who were in the CAI group reported significantly fewer problem behaviors over time than those treated without therapy dogs is further evidence of the importance of this research."

Typically, ADHD is managed with a combination of medications and psychosocial therapies, but many families prefer not to use medications, especially in young children. Therapy dogs add another treatment option for families that is non-invasive, inexpensive and carries no risk of negative side effects. Schuck continued:4

"The take away from this is that families now have a viable option when seeking alternative or adjunct therapies to medication treatments for ADHD, especially when it comes to impaired attention … Inattention is perhaps the most salient problem experienced across the life span for individuals with this disorder."

Therapy Dogs Help Calm, Lower Stress Levels

As for why therapy dogs may prove to be so beneficial to children with ADHD, they’ve long been shown to improve mental health and well-being. Animal-assisted therapy, including holding, stroking or even simply seeing an animal, may lower blood pressure while lessening feelings of hostility and increasing self-esteem.

Therapy dogs differ from service animals, which are trained to perform tasks to benefit a person with a disability. Therapy animals, according to the Fair Housing Act and Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), take part in animal-assisted interventions in which there’s a “goal directed intervention in which an animal meeting specific criteria is an integral part of the treatment process. Animal-assisted therapy is provided in a variety of settings and may be group or individual in nature.”

Research on therapy dogs for teens with substance abuse disorders, many of whom also struggled with ADHD, suggests dogs may also help to normalize brain chemistry. Even when shelter dogs, which don’t have the therapeutic training that therapy dogs do, interacted with the struggling teens, the boys’ moods, attentiveness and serenity increased while sadness decreased.

Researchers also noted that the boys were much calmer around the dogs, with outbursts and hyperactivity significantly diminished “like night and day.”5 This could be because interacting with dogs may increase levels of serotonin and dopamine, which are associated with feelings of pleasure and calm.

Therapy Dogs May ‘Prime’ Children for Therapy

Schuck’s study suggests that children with ADHD may not only have deficits in attention and behavior regulation but also in motivation, making it more difficult for them to engage in social settings and to perform everyday tasks. It’s suggested via the “Motivational Hypothesis” that boosting emotion may improve attention and help children engage in learning.

Toward this end, when children interact with therapy dogs, it may “prime” the children for therapy “by heightening arousal, emotion, attention and engagement in the therapeutic environment.”

The study noted, “There is a growing body of evidence indicating that the opportunity to interact with therapy animals can help motivate individuals to comply with the therapeutic process, productively engage with their therapist and retain their motivation to participate in therapy overtime.”6

In addition, engaging with the dogs forces the children to focus on the present moment and the task at hand, which could help them learn how to improve concentration, attention and focus on the tasks at hand.

Interacting With Animals: Lots to Gain and Nothing to Lose

There’s still a lot to be learned about how dogs may help those with ADHD, but in the meantime there’s a lot to gain, and little risk, of interacting with animals to help support your mental health. If you’re interested in exploring animal-assisted therapy, seek out providers of such therapy in your area.

Therapy dogs may visit children’s hospitals, libraries, universities and other group facilities as well as make rounds in individual counseling sessions. You can also adopt a pet of your own, which may provide similar benefits along with the added bonus of helping to provide a daily routine, or volunteer to work with animals in a shelter setting.

Whether you simply engage in petting a dog, take him for walks or feed and groom him as well, tending to the immediate needs of the animal, and receiving their unconditional love and approval in return, will provide a measure of stress relief and calm that’s hard to replicate elsewhere.

The only “rule” is to try to make the interactions a regular thing. The participants in the featured study interacted with therapy dogs once a week, so strive for this as a minimum and increase the frequency of your animal interactions if you can.