Therapy Dogs Effective in Reducing Symptoms of ADHD

A new study finds positive benefits
By Claudia Kawczynska, July 2018

In the first study using randomized controlled trial of CAI (canine assisted intervention) for children with ADHD, the findings illustrate that the presence of therapy dogs enhances traditional psychosocial intervention and is feasible and safe to implement. This study was conducted at the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine and led by Sabrina E.B. Schuck, PhD, MA, executive director of the UCI Child Development Center. Titled, “A Randomized Controlled Trial of Traditional Psychosocial and Canine-Assisted Interventions for Children with ADHD,” the research involved children aged 7 to 9 who had been diagnosed with ADHD and who had never taken medicines for their condition. “The study randomized participants to compare benefits from evidenced-based, “best practice” psychosocial interventions with the same intervention augmented by the assistance of certified therapy dogs.”

Animal assisted intervention (AAI) has been used for decades, and only recently has empirical evidence begun to support the benefits of these practices. “AAI in healthcare and education settings have been used for decades, but only recently has empirical evidence begun to support these practices reporting benefits including reduced stress (e.g., lower salivary cortisol and lower galvanic skin response), improved cognitive function, reduced problem behaviors, and improved attention.”

The dogs and their handlers came from Pet Partners, a certified therapy dog organization and went through an extensive screening process. They all also had experience in a healthcare or school setting. A few of the volunteers actually stayed for the entire four years of the study, and Schuck tells us they still come to visit the kids at the Child Development Center School. Also during weeks 10 to 12 puppies joined the study. The pups, who participated in the “How to be a Good Teacher” component of the program in the last three weeks of the sessions were service dogs in training from Canine Companions for Independence.

The results indicate children with ADHD who received the added assistance of time spent with a therapy dog experienced a reduction in inattention and an improvement in social skills. And, while both CAI and non-CAI interventions were ultimately found to be effective for reducing overall ADHD symptom severity after 12 weeks, the group assisted by therapy dogs fared significantly better with improved attention and social skills at only eight weeks and demonstrated fewer behavioral problems. No significant group differences, however, were reported for hyperactivity and impulsivity.

“Our finding that dogs can hasten the treatment response is very meaningful,” said Schuck. “In addition, the fact that parents of the children who were in the CAI group reported significantly fewer problem behaviors over time than those treated without therapy dogs is further evidence of the importance of this research.”   

“The take away from this is that families now have a viable option when seeking alternative or adjunct therapies to medication treatments for ADHD, especially when it comes to impaired attention,” said Schuck. “Inattention is perhaps the most salient problem experienced across the life span for individuals with this disorder.” The study also noted, “Considering the apparent acceptability and relatively low risk of involving therapy dogs with children with ADHD, CAI seems to be a favorable option.”

The study was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and Mars-WALTHAM® grant R01H066593.

Claudia Kawczynska is The Bark's co-founder and Editor-in-Chief.

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