Monday, 28 June 2010

The Benefits of Animals

I have always been a firm believer in the power that animals have regarding children - and adults - with special needs. Firstly, animals seem to sense that they must be calm and gentle around these people - I remember being round at a lady's house in Greece for a support group meeting and noticing that my daughter had crawled off somewhere. On finding her, she was on the kitchen balcony with her arms through the railings petting two enormous German Shepherd dogs from the house next door - the same dogs that had snarled, barked and thrown themselves at us as we passed the gate earlier. They were sitting there, calm as you like with soppy expressions as she stroked their heads.

Secondly, the spur of enjoying the company of an animal can get the child to achieve far more than us regular humans! My daughter was a very late walker - she had been sidling around using the furniture to prop her up for a couple of years but she reached three and a half and still did not walk by herself. Then we got a small, lively puppy and she wanted to get to him badly...but puppies don't stay at the edges of rooms where the furniture is! So her first steps were in a manful attempt to get to this puppy and from that day on she was walking.

I realise that not every family is like ours - over the years we've had dogs, a cat, a rabbit, canaries, budgies, a chicken, two ducks, fish, gerbils, hamsters and a parrot, as well as regular visits to my sister's riding stables. But I do think that contact with animals and birds is so beneficial - animals don't care what you look like, whether you can talk or walk, whether you can read or count, they just care about who you are. This takes away all the pressure and anxiety for the child/adult and they can relax and be themselves. This in turn can cause quite major developmental progress. I have been a 'side-walker' for Riding for the Disabled and seen so many cases of children making huge steps in their learning because of the incentive of being on a horse. Add to that the physical benefits of developing balance and core strength, as well as increased mobility for children that may struggle to get around, it's a winning combination.

In Britain there are many centres for Riding for the Disabled, although I have found they tend to cater for groups from special schools rather than private lessons as the ponies they use are lent by people who have them in the stables for livery, which means after school and over weekends the horse is probably being ridden by it's owner. However, it doesn't hurt to ask around just in case private lessons are available - if your child goes to mainstream school, they will not be going in a school group. Check out the Riding for the Disabled website for details of centres near you and more information.

Even owning a pet at home has all sorts of benefits - one of my daughter's jobs is to make sure the water bowl is always full, teaching her responsibility. She had to learn that this job must be done every day, not just weekdays, or the dog would die of thirst! The exercise from going on regular walks with the dogs is so good for her - with adulthood she has trouble maintaining her weight and 'exercise' is not attractive. But offer her a hike with the dog and she's the first to be ready. She has also learnt patience, gentleness and even about loss and death, all valuable life lessons.

There is even a scheme in the south of England - Reading Educational Assistance Dogs - where dogs are taken into schools to help the less able children with their reading - a dog doesn't care if you make a mistake or take half an hour to read one paragraph. This gives the children confidence as no-one is judging them - plus the excitement of having a dog in school makes the lesson fun!

1 comment:

  1. Hello Caroline!
    I have to say that this part of life is quite unknown for me but last year I have spoken quite much with my friend who is working in a private home for adult mentally handicapped people (sorry if the word is not right). And the best is that 'Obi'-dog is usually at work with her! So this unwanted puppy find really important meaning for his life!
    Next month all this 'Home' is coming to us for holidays! They will sleep at our house and we are cooking and making all the meals for them from the breakfast etc. We have also a guest house where we sleep with our animals. This is now first time we try something like this and we hope everything goes well. They are already waiting so much to come here and meet us!
    Best wishes Teje