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How Pets Can Benefit Children with Special Needs

From unconditional love to life skills, a pet is a powerful friend for kids.

The connections humans form with animals are truly amazing, inspiring, and unlike anything else. Pets play a comforting role in people’s lives as friends who can shape their companions’ personality, which is a reason many pet owners consider their cats and dogs as their children. Despite these valuable connections, pets are silent creatures who communicate in their own way—but having an affectionate creature who you don’t feel pressure to talk to and who isn’t going to judge you can help individuals, especially children, build better relationships with others.

Special needs children can benefit greatly from these types of relationships. Whether they have a physical disability, learning disability, or trouble communicating with others, building a relationship with an animal and learning to care for it can teach children valuable life lessons about respect, boundaries, and how to treat the ones you love.

Emotional Support and Service Animals

Emotional support and service animals play different roles in a child’s life. Service dogs perform actions for their human companions that can be lifesaving, which is why they often gain entrance privileges in stores and businesses. Emotional support animals, on the other hand, simply give unconditional love and affection, which is incredibly important for special needs children who lack confidence or struggle to show their emotions. Being able to let their guard down around a cat or dog who is happy to simply sit nearby and enjoy their company can help children relax and feel more comfortable with themselves.

Whether the animal in a child’s life is a service animal, emotional support animal, or simply a furry friend, pets can play a huge role in their lives. In 2013, there were more than 4,000 service dogs in the US and even more being used as emotional support animals. Before 1980, however, dogs were mostly used to help individuals with seeing and hearing impairments. Today, dogs are increasingly being used for people with a wide range of medical needs.

Psychiatric uses are now the fourth most common use for service dogs in North America, ranking behind guide dogs for the blind, service dogs for mobility, and dogs for the hearing-impaired. When used in conjunction with things like mindfulness exercises for children and other means of controlling emotions, they offer essential support to children with special needs. This is especially true for learners who have conditions that affect emotional stability such as ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, or an anxiety disorder.

Animals also give children and adults something to nurture, a role that is widely recognized to make people more empathetic. This is because, as a caretaker, they’re responsible for another being’s life. Animals serve a family member role in many households, but they also teach children about their responsibility to others. They can provide kids with simple but important tasks to accomplish each day such as feeding or brushing the cat or taking the dog out for a walk. The feeling of responsibility and finishing a task can boost a child’s confidence and increase their motivation to complete other tasks in their lives.

Although emotional support animals don’t play as big a role as service animals in the lives of their human companions, they play a major role in a person’s day-to-day emotional stability, and for that, they receive some privileges. For adults, an emotional support animal is often exempt from extra deposits or pet rent that can be required of animals that don’t serve a medical purpose. However, because animals can be such a necessity for their human companions, they are recognized and respected by the medical community.

Pets benefit children with special needs.

Special needs children learn differently than other children, and it’s important for them to receive the extra care and attention they need in order to grow into the best version of themselves. Special education teachers use a variety of methods to support the educational and emotional growth of their students—one that is often used to help children with special needs learn and explore emotions is through music. Music helps teach social, emotional, and character development to children, can increase social cohesion between classmates, and can help children develop positive attitudes.

In order to go the extra mile for their students, special education teachers are also often educated in behavioral skills. These include such as discrete trial training, natural environment training, and pivotal response treatment, which uses uses play-based activities to improve targeted development areas, such as responsivity to stimuli and cues, self-sufficiency, social interactions, and personal motivation.

These areas of behavior are also areas where animals can help special needs children. Although personal motivation and self-sufficiency can be difficult for a special needs child, as it can be easy for a child to ignore their responsibilities to themselves, they are less likely to ignore the responsibilities for their beloved pet who needs them. Pets are patient creatures who give children a chance to work through their emotions without risk of judgement, and caring for them helps children learn about responsibility, trust, and themselves as well.

Pets are an incredibly important part of many people’s lives because relationships with animals offer a different kind of bond than relationships with humans. For children who have trouble expressing emotions, animals offer unconditional love and support without the pressure of having to say the right things and make the right facial expressions. Children with special needs should have access to creative forms of education as they develop and should experience all of the love, support and understanding that their family has to offer—and animals can be comforting and supportive companions for them as they grow.

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