Dogs have long been considered our most faithful companions. I did not fully understand the rewards of being a dog owner until my son and daughter, at the time ages 13 and 10, convinced me it was time to find a canine companion. We decided to adopt the first dog we met through a local rescue agency. Enter Judy, a 4-year-old pug mix. Immediately, she became a loving member of our family. I also noticed that she had a good temperament and a very calm demeanor. I decided to start the process of becoming a therapy dog team.
A therapy dog provides comfort and affection, and helps reduce anxiety in the settings it is invited into, such as hospitals, airports, schools and long-term care facilities. Think about the last encounter you had with a friendly, furry canine, and I dare you not to smile!
Comfort and Affection
After being impacted by a traumatic situation, children need gentle, warm arms to welcome them back and provide love and comfort. Parents and caregivers need to know that children may need extra snuggles at bedtime or throughout the day, especially younger children.
Older children may also need a hug or two, but also just to know that you are there for them. Giving them reassurance that you care about them is essential.
When a child’s world has been rocked by uncertainty or violence, they need a safe haven.
Who doesn’t remember the feeling of a big sloppy kiss from a dog excited to greet you – that sense of unconditional love? Children need that all the time, but especially during times of vulnerability. They need to know and feel that you care. It may be as simple as sitting next to them, going for a walk or inviting them to participate in one of their favorite activities, such as coloring, drawing, reading, or playing a game.
Don’t you love how dogs look at you like you are the center of the universe? They are loyal and giving and simply love to interact with their family and those around them.
A child who has been through a terrible incident needs that same attention. They need us to watch for any signs that they are not coping well, so that extra support can be provided as needed.
Signs to watch for:
• Changes in sleeping or eating that last longer than a couple of weeks.
• More extreme emotional reactions or mood swings that seem to be worsening.
• Behavioral changes, such as aggression or withdrawing from activities or hobbies.
• Seeming stuck or having a lot of difficulty with transitions.
Calming and Reducing Anxiety
One of the biggest benefits that pets provide for those in contact with them is assisting in stress reduction. The presence of an animal has been shown to have positive effects on calming the nervous system.
How can we replicate that?
The adults supporting children after trauma need to ensure that they are taking care of themselves, and are able to regulate their emotions and be truly present for the children who need them. Having a support system in place through friends or more formal help such as counselors, clergy or health professionals may be necessary.
Other activities to consider include going for walks, eating nutritious foods and engaging in a practice that restores and rejuvenates us, such as prayer, yoga or a martial art, just to name a few.
Restoring a Sense of Security and Protection
After a difficult situation, children need to know that the adults are back in charge, and are able to provide sanctuary from further trauma. Predictability and safety are essential to regain some sense of control. What gives children confidence is the sense that the adults and caregivers around them can protect them and are in charge.
Take the example of Spartacus, a therapy dog in to respond in the aftermath of the terrible shooting tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The children felt safe with Spartacus because he is a large dog, and this made the children feel safe.
Brad Cook, his handler, made this observation:
“One of the biggest lessons we learned was that the children were not ready to talk yet. The parents could articulate things; they felt the need to get that information from the children, but the children, depending upon their age, weren’t ready to talk, couldn’t articulate, or were just tired of the parents saying ‘Talk to me, talk to me.’”
I saved the best point for last – did you ever notice that dogs don’t talk? Dogs do their best communicating through play, engagement, and a simple, beautiful presence.
The biggest lesson we can take from dogs is that it doesn’t matter if you are not sure what to say to a child who has been impacted by trauma. What really matters is that you are simply there, with compassion, caring, a sense of openness and gentle companionship.
Trish Harper, MSW, RSW
Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute Inc.
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