Therapy Dogs Benefit Those With ADHD

Much remains to learn about using this treatment
By Karen B. London PhD, August 2018

Even for people who don’t consider dogs a panacea for all the world’s ills, there is good reason to suspect that dogs could be helpful for kids with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Children with ADHD may suffer from physiological factors related to abnormalities in the catecholamine system, especially dopamine receptors and transporters as well as genes that are necessary to convert it to norepinephrine. The result is decreased motivation and reduced emotions, which can lead to inattention and disinterest in social interactions as well as in the learning process.

If this “Motivational Hypothesis” is true, then interacting with dogs may help these kids by heightening their arousal and emotional states and leading to increased attention and interest in the environment in which therapy takes place. It’s also possible that the opportunity to interact with a therapy dog motivates children to comply with the requirements of therapy and to engage with the therapist.

Though therapy dogs have been used to help kids with this ADHD for a long time, a new study is the first randomized experiment to document the effects people have been anecdotally reporting for years. In “Canine Assisted Therapy for Kids With ADHD” researchers share the results of their research showing that therapy dogs effectively reduce symptoms of this disorder in children.

The kids in the study were all 7-9 years old and none of them had ever taken medication for ADHD. All of the kids were treated according to long established best practices in the field for psychosocial intervention. Half the kids were randomly assigned to a group which also received Canine Assisted Intervention (CAI). They were able to interact twice weekly with therapy dogs, reading to them and teaching them new behaviors. The kids who did not receive CAI read to realistic dog puppets and taught other children specific skills.

Children in both groups showed improvement in their ADHD symptoms, but standard psychosocial intervention combined with CAI was more effective than psychosocial intervention alone. Specifically, the kids who interacted with therapy dogs had greater improvement in social skills and attention than kids whose treatment did not include dogs. They also had fewer behavior problems than the kids receiving standard treatment without dogs and they showed positive improvements earlier in the study than the group of kids who did not interact with dogs. There were no differences found between the groups in terms of their hyperactivity and impulsivity.

There is a big push to develop and study new therapies to treat ADHD that do not involve medication. Many parents are hesitant to use medication with their children, and typically only use it for 1-3 years. There is a strong possibility that many parents will be more open to CAI than to using medication, so therapies with dogs could result in higher long-term compliance.

This study showed that therapy with dogs improved some symptoms of ADHD but not others, so it is likely that multiple treatment types are needed to target the full range of symptoms. There is still much to be learned about the best way to incorporate therapy dogs into the treatment of kids with ADHD.

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.

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