Pets in the lives of children (Proceedings)


Pets are one avenue for knowing other species, and broader exposure to wild settings in nature is also important.

"A lonely dilemma descends on a people when they are separated from the elemental processes of nature, for we are all integral parts of one interdependent, interrelated, and remarkable community." (Bustad, 1988)

As emphasized in the book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (Louv, 2005), children need to experience other forms of life besides their friends and families. Pets are one avenue for knowing other species, and broader exposure to wild settings in nature is also important.

Companion animals in typical settings

Petkeeping experiences are part of a lifelong pattern that is part of family traditions (Kidd and Kidd, 1997). Beginning as young toddlers, children are highly attracted to dogs, far more than a similar-sized mechanical toy (Kidd and Kidd, 1987).

Children growing up in conventional settings and lacking special needs often have companion animals, or at least know some in their neighborhoods. They view these animals as among their special friends (Bryant, 1985). Children lacking younger siblings make compensating adjustments in their social lives by spending more time with companion animals and also elderly acquaintances or family members (reviewed in Melson, Schwarz, and Beck, 1997; Melson, 2006). Thus, the children assure themselves experiences in nurturing and caregiving. The animals often offer the children their first experience with death and the loss involved.

Working in a classroom setting, Gene Myers (1998) documented how animals play a role in children developing a sense and awareness of self that includes: agency for initiating action; affectivity for feeling happy, sad, and angry; coherence in being unified and parts of a whole; and having continuity to be the same over time. Myers' work complements the psychoanalytic perspective advocated by Brown (2004) that animals can serve as selfobjects to assist the person in defining the self. A major longitudinal study of human development over the life course pointed to the importance of the pre-teen years in establishing "planful competence" that carries a person through life (Clausen, 1993). Acquiring in childhood the traits of dependability, intellectual involvement, and self-confidence predicted an ability to absorb adverse life events throughout life.

Animal-assisted therapy for children

Therapeutic uses of animals for children assume great importance, especially for parents who are willing to do anything to enhance their children's lives and perhaps assure some small or large gains in their performance.

Animals enhancing education. Psychiatrist Aaron Katcher has spent the past decade working with highly disturbed children (attention-deficit disorder and autism) in institutional settings, seeking to improve their performance with exposure to animals (Katcher and Teumer, 2004). He has made similar efforts in public school settings (Katcher and Teumer, 2006). While the treatments have been effective in improving behavior while the children are in the farm or zoo setting, it has not been feasible to create a reliable carryover effect once the children return to the classroom or dormitory.

Facilitation by animals of medical or psychological therapy. Therapists often incorporate animals as adjuncts to psychological therapy, especially with children. For adolescents with anger behavior cycles who are required to attend a violence prevention program, a cognitive behavioral approach involving pet therapy can be used as an adjunct to treatment (Hanselman, 2002). Promising results were reported in providing interaction with dogs for children with pervasive developmental disorders, showing they exhibited a more playful mood, were more focused, and were more aware of their social environments when in the presence of the dog (Martin and Farnum, 2002).

In the realm of treating disturbed children and using animals as an adjunct bridge toward therapy, the most comprehensive facility is Green Chimneys, a residential farm that incorporates a wide array of animals in imaginative approaches for treatment Equine-assisted therapy, exposure to farm animals, and rehabilitation of wildlife are offered as an avenue to establish a trusting relationship with an intern present. Over time, the child becomes willing to also trust a person within the relationship with the animals. Green Chimneys offers internship opportunities for people wanting to gain experience with their various programs.

Equine therapy for spasticity and other physical disorders. Hippotherapy, or equine-assisted therapy, is a well-established treatment for children with spasticity or musculo-skeletal disorders. It also is used to motivate improved performance in educational settings, for example, with children who are hyperactive. Some countries prescribe the hippotherapy treatment as a reimbursable expense. This treatment improves the child's function during the treatment, though in some cases a carryover effect may be limited or non-existent. A very important aspect of this treatment is in providing a celebrative and joyous occasion enjoyed by everyone involved. It offers relief for the families for a time, and something to look forward to on a regular basis.

Assistance dogs for children. In general, children are less likely than adults to be assigned an assistance dog, probably due to the variable responsibility levels of children and the necessary requirements for handling the dog. Guide dogs are only give to adults. Nonetheless, assistance dogs occasionally are assigned to children who use wheelchairs, and sometimes to children with autism where another family member assumes responsibility as the handler. Children with frequent seizures may be given a dog to help assure their safety during and following a seizure.

The use of dogs for children who have frequent seizures is one of the most compelling uses of animals. The initial concept of the first placement with a young girl, Angie, was simply to assure her safety during and following the seizure. The dog was trained to stay with her and offer protection. Over time the trainer noticed unusual behavior preceding the seizures, and thus it was discovered that dogs can anticipate seizures. This capability by now is well-documented, both in specially-trained seizure dogs and also companion dogs in families where a child has frequent seizures (Brown and Strong, 2001). A further benefit is the reduction in the frequency of seizures that typically occurs with a seizure dog present (Strong, Brown, Huyton, and Coyle, 2002).


Animals play a significant role in the development of children and also expose them to opportunities for nurturing and close exposure to another species. For children with special needs, animals can deliver targeted assistance designed to shape the child's motivation, assure social acceptance and contact, or assist in specific tasks. Specialized search tools for the research literature are available at the website for the UC Davis Companion Animal Behavior Program,


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Brown, S. W., and Strong, V. 2001. The use of seizure-alert dogs. Seizure 10, 39-41.

Bryant, B. K. 1985. The neighborhood walk: Sources of support in middle childhood. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development 50, 1-122.

Bustad, L. K. 1988. Living together: People, animals, environment—A personal historical perspective. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 31, 171-184.

Clausen, J.A. 1993. American Lives: Looking Back at the Children of the Great Depression. New York: Free Press.

Hanselman, J. L. 2001. Coping skills interventions with adolescents in anger management using animals in therapy. Journal of Child and Adolescent Group Therapy 11, 159-183.

Hart, L. A. 2006. Community context and psychosocial benefits of animal companionship. In: Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy: Theoretical Foundations and Guidelines for Practice, 2nd ed. (A. Fine, ed.), pp. 73-94. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

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Katcher, A. and Teumer, S. 2006. A 4-year trial of animal-assisted therapy with public school special education students. In: Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy: Theoretical Foundations and Guidelines for Practice, 2nd ed. (A. Fine, ed.), pp. 227-242. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

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Kidd, A. H., and Kidd, R. M. 1997. Changes in the behavior of pet owners across generations. Psychological Reports 80, 195-202.

Louv, R. 2005. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.

Martin, F., and Farnum, J. 2002. Animal-assisted therapy for children with pervasive developmental disorders. Western Journal of Nursing Research 24, 657-670.

Melson, G. F. 2006. Animals in the lives of children. In: Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy: Theoretical Foundations and Guidelines for Practice, 2nd ed. (A. Fine, ed.), pp. 207-226. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Melson, G. F., Schwarz, R. L., and Beck, A. M. 1997. Importance of companion animals in children's lives—Implications for veterinary practice. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 211, 1512-1518.

Meyers, Jr., O. E. 1998. Children & Animals: Social Development and Our Connections to Other Species. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Strong, V., Brown, S., Huyton, M., and Coyle, H. 2002. Effect of trained Seizure Alert Dogs on frequency of tonic-clonic seizures. Seizure 11, 402-205.

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