Assistant clinical professor of pediatrics and UC Irvine alumna Sabrina Schuck has been conducting research with therapy dogs and young children in order to find evidentiary support for the idea and anecdotes that dogs are good for children with ADHD.
Engaged in a $2.2 million study at the UC Irvine Child Development Center, Schuck wants to see if the benefits of pet-assisted therapy can improve the social skills of children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.
With a test group of 12, Schuck engages the children in social skills sessions twice a week where the animal-assisted therapy is given as a reward for good behavior. When the children behave well, they are awarded with positive affirmation and half of the group at a time gets to have contact with one of the specially-trained pet therapy dogs.
“We tell them when they’re doing things right constantly [because] these kids need more positive feedback than other students,” said Shuck.
Keeping scientific integrity a primary concern, Shuck wants to scientifically validate that therapy animals (dogs) are beneficial to children suffering from ADHD. Schuck is not only performing the study on the 12 experimental children — she is also using a control group of the same size as well.
The children in the control group also have ADHD, receive the same social skills training and equal attention to positive affirmation as the experimental group. However, there is one key difference between the groups. The control group does not get to have face-time with the therapy dogs. These children instead get the reward of cuddling with a stuffed animal.
Acknowledging that all of the children in the experimental group are different and have their own personalities, Schuck and her research team give the children not only the affirmation of a reward, but also a choice.
“We believe there are dog personalities that attract certain human personalities, and we provide three different types,” Shuck said. “The kids get to choose which dog they want to play with. Some prefer a docile, old retriever like Cinder. You can see them relax while they’re petting her. Others think that’s boring.”
For those who like more engaging dogs, or even just want to play catch, they are given the opportunity to choose other dogs to spend time with.
Children with ADHD typically tend to have shorter attention spans, trouble following directions and are usually forgetful. Without mediation of some sort, this disorder can come to dictate their lives as they become impaired from their symptoms.
“All of these kids have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. They’re an aggressive group. A couple of them are at risk of suspension from their school,” Shuck said when describing the children in the study.
The benefits of the study have already become apparent to Shuck and other witnesses. With none of the children under the influence of medication, either by choice or because they can not tolerate drug-mediated intervention for their ADHD, it is clearly seen that the dogs are the main reason that the children are “calm and engaged,” as Schuck describes.
“They know that the more they participate in the training, the more they can hang out with the dogs,” Shuck said.
It is not yet clear that the children are getting better, but Schuck claims that, “it’s lowering stress on the child and the whole family system.”
Since the study has shown great benefits since Shuck launched the experiment in July of 2010, it is possible that the anecdotal evidence may have some proof behind it.
Putting all of the doubt to rest, UCI alumna Sabrina Schuck and the UC Irvine Child Development Center are showing, through the minds of children, that dogs are beneficial to the health of human beings. Man’s best friend may also be child’s best alternative to drugs when it comes to ADHD.
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