Dogs Play an Important Role for Children with Special Needs

The following is a guest post by Susan Combs, a pet health and safety expert. Enjoy!

Dogs can be wonderful companion for disabled children. For children with disabilities, dogs can help them grow physically and emotionally. Children who grow up with dogs have less risk of allergies and asthma; many also learn responsibility, compassion, and empathy.

Dogs also offer children and parents more freedom from each other. Children are more prone to approach and interact with another child who is playing with a puppy or dog. In this way, a dog can also make a bridge between a less socially outgoing child and other potential playmates. Kids and dogs alike benefit from each other’s company, and they enjoy some pretty valuable benefits along the way. 


For example, cuddle a puppy and everything seems to be perfect, you forget all the stress.

Similarly, for a child with a disability, spending time with a dog – either in a relaxed environment or in a therapy setting — can provide some relief from what at times may be a stressful situation.

How a Therapy Dog Can Help?

  • A therapy dog is a dog that might be trained to provide affection and comfort to children in schools, nursing homes, schools, hospices, and to children with autism. Therapy dogs are usually not assistance or service dogs, but can be one or both with some organizations.
  • Kids who are emotionally attached to their dog are better able to build relationships with other people.
  • A dog can help ease separation anxiety in children when their parents aren’t around.
  • They can guide kids who are visually impaired, alert people who are hearing impaired to specific sounds, get help when a person has a seizure, as well as retrieve dropped items, open doors, and assist a child with balance.
  • Some children with autism or other learning difficulties are better able to interact with dogs than people. Autistic children often rely on nonverbal cues to communicate, just as dogs do. And learning to first connect with a dog may even help an autistic child in his or her interactions with people.
  • Dogs can help children with learning disabilities learn how to regulate stress and calm themselves, making them better equipped to overcome the challenges of their disorder.
  • Playing and exercising with a dog can help a child with learning disorders stay alert and attentive throughout the day. It can also be a great antidote to stress and frustration caused by the learning disability.
  • Each week, Becky Bishop, owner of Puppy Manners Family Dog School, drives her chocolate Labrador retriever Moose to Wood moor Elementary School in Bothell, where the pair works in a class for kids with special needs. They bring along a leash and a dog brush. “The kids with autism are very sensitive to touch,” she says. They don’t like to touch the dogs but they like to interact with them. Through the brushing, they really connect.” Further, a child wishes to go with their dog.
  • For kids with cerebral palsy, Moose provides an incentive to stretch. The therapist will take a child out of her wheelchair, and have the dog lie with her on the floor. Moose is a therapy dog, providing therapeutic support to people in a wide variety of ways. Uses for dogs in therapy are limited only by the imagination, says Laura Hardman, Animal Assisted Therapy provider and owner of Seattle-based Sirius Healing. “Dogs can be used to steady an individual when they’re walking,” or to support a person getting up from a seated position, she says. “Kids may pet or comb the dog to exercise an arm, or throw a ball for the dog. Giving verbal commands to the dog helps with speech.”
  • Before making a dog your kids’ companion make sure it is trained properly.


The Journal of Pediatrics did a case study that showed kids who had a dog during the first year of their life had higher immune response, with 31% fewer respiratory tract infections than those without.

Maryellen Elcock, Ph.D.,( director of animal-assisted therapy services for the Delta Society, a national nonprofit organization that works to improve human health through service and therapy animals.) cites a 1996 study that revealed “the presence of a dog results in a significantly reduced number of hours of paid and family-provided assistance needed for the activities of daily living.”

There are several examples that the dogs enable children to gain independence and confidence by being with them all the time:

  1. A child with a seizure disorder who never went out in public alone started to go out because she wasn’t “alone” anymore.
  2. A child who walked with braces gained increased confidence to do things on her own when she had both the dog and the braces to help stabilize her.
  3. Taking a dog for a walk, or run are fun and rewarding ways to fit healthy daily exercise into your kid’s schedule. Dog owners are far more likely to meet their daily exercise requirements—and exercising every day is great for the animal as well. It will deepen the connection between your kid and dog.

For instance, Hayleigh Elizabeth and Bitzy – Hayleigh Elizabeth was a sweet angel born with Down syndrome, who had some insurmountable health issues associated with that. She courageously fought for 18 months before passing away. Her dog, Bitzy, knew she was an incredibly special little girl and never left her side, from the moment they first met. While the photo quality isn’t the best, the picture says more about their bond than words ever could.

Screen Shot 2016-08-23 at 10.18.46 AMBitzy comforts Hayleigh Elizabeth.

Conclusion: Therapy and trained dogs help children who have low self-esteem are often more willing to interact with an animal than with a person because the animal is less intimidating and does not pass judgment. In all their activities, therapy animals provide unconditional acceptance to those they visit.

About the author:susan-combs
Susan Combs is a Pet Health and Safety expert. Her specialties include keeping up with important issues regarding pet health and pet care, working closely with pet parents to find answers concerning training, grooming and caring for specific breeds of dogs.

Caitlyn Simmons

Caitlyn Simmons

Professional dog petter.