Therapy dogs can help children with speech difficulties For some children, learning language can be very challenging, making speech therapy sessions stressful and not very fun.
But all that changes when Pita, an adorable Labrador-golden retriever, is involved.
“My students love playing Jenga and Honeybee Tree games with Pita. They are encouraged to say a word or prayer of fate and Pita will remove a piece of the game with her mouth, “said Jennifer Yost, a speech and language pathologist in Orange County, California, who works with Pita.
Pita is a facility dog from Canine Companions for Independence, a non-profit organization. She is part assistant, part cheerleader, and versatile talented dog.
With more than 60 orders under her furry belt, Pita can open and close doors, pick up fallen objects and even play dress up.
“She wears many costumes,” Yost said, “and children are encouraged to create narrative stories to work on sequencing, perspective taking and expressive language.”
It is also part of a growing number of programs that use therapy dogs to help children improve their use and understanding of language.
One of them is the Pawsitive Play program at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, where therapy dogs encourage children during physical, occupational and speech therapy. The dogs that work here even have a badge and have a lunch break, just like other hospital workers.
In Ottawa, Canada, the Reading Education Assistance Dog Program (R.E.A.D.) links children with canine reading partners. Dogs can not read, but are excellent listeners, which gives children the opportunity to practice their oral language skills.
As any dog lover testifies, having a dog around makes any activity more enjoyable. But therapy dogs are more than fun.
They can motivate children to work harder or help them relax when speech therapy becomes too difficult.
“There have been many times when a child was struggling to make a sound or turn off during a difficult task,” Yost said, “and Pita instinctively relieved her stress by pushing her hand or rolling on her back as if to say” It’s okay if It’s hard for you. I’ll still love you if you caress me. ”
Yost said that Pita’s ability as an unprejudiced listener allows children to practice speech and language without fear of being criticized or mocked.
Researchers study benefits of therapy dogs
A small number of researchers have been studying the benefits of having a therapy dog in speech therapy sessions.
A recent study found that therapy with dogs such as Pita could make speech and language therapy sessions more effective than therapy alone.
The study, which was published on September 19 in the journal Anthrozoös, included 69 nursery children with developmental dysphasia.
This condition affects the child’s ability to form words, communicate and understand what others say. Like other speech and language problems, it can affect a child’s quality of life both now and as they grow up.
The children in the study participated in traditional speech therapy or speech therapy with Agáta, a middle-aged Peruvian hairless bitch. The researchers followed with the children 10 months later to see how their use of language had improved.
The researchers found that when a therapy dog participated in the sessions, the children could better imitate the communication signals. This included copying facial expressions, such as narrowing the eyes, closing the eyes, filling the cheeks with air and smiling.
The children were also more motivated and open to communicate when Agáta was present. And they showed authentic and natural expressions when interacting with her.
The researchers said in a press release that more research is needed, especially with a larger group of children, to know how beneficial the treatment of dogs will be in helping children with language.
However, other studies have found some benefits of therapy dogs to help adults with language problems and children with developmental disorders. These studies are also small.
Children of all levels and abilities can enjoy having a reading partner for dogs, but those who need more help with language can benefit more.
Yost said that Pita has greatly impacted some of his students on the autism spectrum.
“While children with autism may have difficulty maintaining eye contact with adults or peers,” Yost said, “they often engage in spontaneous eye contact with Pita.”
Pita can even respond to commands from electronic communication devices that provide language assistance to children with speech difficulties.
However, much of Pita’s magic happens without the children noticing.
“Often, the child thinks that they are just playing with their friend Pita,” Yost said, “but in reality, we are addressing all of their goals within the naturalistic game.”