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How Animals Are Creating Happier, Healthier Kids

With all the Star Wars buzz, you may have seen pictures of Carrie Fisher (or rather, Princess Leia) toting around a French Bulldog with an oversized tongue. It turns out that he (Gary) isn’t just a lap dog. He’s actually Carrie’s service dog for her bipolar disorder. Now that Gary’s TV spots are earning him even more Instagram followers, the mainstream world is aware of this thing called animal-assisted therapy.
Gary is pretty ridiculously adorable, but he’s not the first pet to be used as a “therapist.” Animals from dogs and cats to dolphins and horses have been able to do some incredible things for people. Kids especially. Physical health, mental and emotional well-being, and behavioral challenges all stand to improve, and while specialized therapy animals come with special training and well-planned approaches, everyday household pets can be used for similar benefits (my son has a bunny!)
I know that medications are necessary sometimes, but they come with side-effects and consequences that no parent wants to put on their child. Specialists can be a helpful addition to any plan of action, but they’re also expensive and they may not be able to connect with our children. I’m all for us getting the help we need in whatever way it’s best given, but I think every parent should consider the ways a therapy animal or a special pet can help kids. Plus, lasting physical and behavioral changes come from developing new skills. And, it turns out, there’s an animal for that. <wink, wink>
The animal-human bond plays a HUGE role in our mood. It doesn’t matter if it’s time playing with a dog, petting a cat, riding a horse, or holding a guinea pig; they light us up. It’s no surprise given the way that animals around though. They live fully in the moment and they’re free of judgement. They’re absolutely immersed in the time we’re spending with them, and they give us their complete and undivided attention. On top of that, they “need” us for treats and fetch. The combination of attention, appreciation, and companionship lets us feel important and valuable. They’re also make some pretty hysterical YouTube videos, so they’re obviously experts at provoking giggles. This sort of fun and satisfaction promotes a deep bond and sense of gratitude that works. There are animals being used to assist everything from chemo pain, dementia, and depression and PTSD. In a world full of critical people. “logic and rationale,” and unending to-do’s, we need to be brought down to earth to remember the things that really matter. Pets have the basics down better than any “responsible” and organized adult.
The effect that animals have on our mood is actually being used for education purposes with reading dogs. These days, schools and libraries get regular visits from furry “specialists” for reading time. Their presence certainly gets kids smiling, but it’s much more than having a distraction. Kids are able to read to dogs without any fear of judgement, comments, or lifted brows. This is a HUGE deal for kids struggling with reading. Getting kids to actually pick up a book and read can be hard, and dogs are helping children to see reading time in a whole new light. Anxieties are dropped so kids can relax and really focus on the book in front of them. They get to feel important too because they have the job of sharing a new book with their reading buddy. This structure can completely change a child’s relationship with books because they go from associating reading with pain to pairing reading with fun and pleasure.   
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Dogs are fantastic because they’re wagging and excitement offers a mood boost that comes with an excuse to get outside and get some fresh air. Exercise and time outdoors means feel-good endorphins and less stress. Getting a dog is obviously the best way to encourage more time outside, but health is about more than just exercise. Studies show that having a pet increases self-esteem, sociability, empathy and simply thinking about our pet can help us cope with negative experiences. Mental well-being is more important than ever with the world we live in, so if a pet can help with this than I’m willing to deal with a little poop now and then (though I would never, ever brave a poopy puppy).
One of the areas receiving the most help involves autism spectrum disorders. The average person relies on words to communicate just as much as they lean on vocal tone, physical expressions, sayings, and word choice. These subtle forms of communication are often lost to  our autistic children, and that can make for some frustrating and confusing interactions.
Believe it or not, horses can help with this through equine-assisted therapy. Since horses aren’t vocal, they’re able to help autistic kids develop awareness of their surroundings and notice the non-verbal cues used for communication. It’s critical to be tuned in to a horse that you’re riding, and they communicate things with subtle body movements. All of the attention and care given before, during, and after rides really pushes kids to build their focus and awareness, but in a way that’s fun and meaningful.
Even for kids without autism or other disorders, pets can still play an incredible role in promoting behavior awareness and building new skills. The cues that animals like dogs and cats provide have much to say about their mood, and this offers the opportunity for some great discussion. By looking at how things affect an animal, our kids are able to see the relationship of cause-and-effect in action. Drawing these parallels lets them understand how they too are impacted by situations and feelings. Over time, an awareness develops that allows children to identify what they’re feeling, what’s bothering them, and where their behavior is coming from. Things suddenly aren’t so abstract or confusing, and they can quickly catch on to what’s going on inside. That’s huge!  
Whether you want to go all-out with a therapy animal or you want to spice up the family pet with a little thought and creativity, pets can have a huge impact on our kids. Certified specialists are obviously going to be a wealth of information and loaded with tested approaches, but I think that we can create our own “programs” at home. If we take the time to really understand our children’s needs and where their challenges stem from, we can develop an everyday system that can encourage them to build the skills they need to be happy and capable. This is a way to find a new meaning to happiness and do something for change. Doing something is one matter, but living it. That’s the secret to success.

Cheers to parenting healthy!

*Post written by: Ash Stevens

Ash Stevens is a mother, writer, and a wannabe shaman. She loves health, gardening, simplicity, culture, chocolate, and sarcasm. If she isn’t writing about family and relationships on her blog, then she’s surely playing badminton with the kids. Find her on Twitter or Facebook and make a new friend!

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I love my Frenchie! She always cheers everybody up when you’re in a bad mood because she’s just always SOO happy! I think I’m going to take her out for a walk now lol.