How Therapy Dogs Can Help Kids with Speech Difficulties

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While we’ve all heard of therapy dogs that are adept at drawing a smile out of a senior or calming the mind of a troubled veteran, but odds are that you never knew this type of specially trained dog could also help kids who struggle with verbal communication ranging from mild speech impairments to developmental issues like dysphasia.

With a condition as severe as developmental dysphasia, children are unable to form words or understand what others are saying. As a result, it requires ongoing, rather rigorous speech and language therapy sessions that can be daunting to a young child. And that’s where a gentle, well-tempered pooch can step up to play the hero.

Studies have shown that having a dog present during such sessions not only helped kids be more receptive to the lessons being taught but actually motivated them to actively engage in communicating with the instructor. According to Kristýna Machová of the Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague, “The presence of the dog improves the relationship with the therapist, as it distracts from the fear of therapy in children and provides them with a form of support during the practice.”

Let’s face it, dogs are natural born listeners, and because they offer these kids a relaxed, non-judgemental learning environment, young students are able to practice their verbal and socialization skills without feeling anxious.

Which leads us to Pita, a loving Lab/Golden mix from the California-based Canine Companions for Independence. Because she has over 60 special skills under her belt, she knows exactly how and when to step in to offer a little comfort and support to a frazzled child. For example, if the student is struggling with a certain sound or has completely shut down because of an extra difficult task, Pita is quick to offer encouragement by gently nudging the child’s hand or even rolling over onto her back to provide a little comic relief during a distressing time.

And for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), where limitations can range from mild stuttering to selective mutism, using a therapy dog as an extension of the therapist or by placing the dog with the child’s family for a period of time, has net impressive results in the areas of concentration and compliance with instructions. These are the types of gains that are imperative to effectively coaxing inter-active communication with the child.

In fact, Jennifer Yost, a speech-language pathologist who works with our aforementioned friend, Pita, says. “While children with autism may have difficulty engaging in eye contact with adults or peers, they often engage in eye contact spontaneously with Pita.”

With kids that stutter, the not-for-profit PAWS for Readers is a volunteer-based group based out of the north-eastern United States that brings therapy dogs to local schools to help students with reading or speech difficulties. There’s nothing better than a passive pooch to practice your reading skills on, and for children with a stutter, it provides a relaxed, no-pressure environment that allows them to read aloud to one of the many volunteer therapy dogs. Simply removing the pressure of being evaluated by an adult, allows these kids to relax and focus on enjoying their book with a genuinely appreciative audience.


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