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Willow Wonka, a diabetic alert dog, warns 16-year-old Adam Schwartz of highs or lows in his blood sugar before he is even symptomatic. Photo courtesy Eliza Donley Nolte

Partners With Paws

Animals are helping kids with a variety of conditions and disabilities heal and live more fully.

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“When I got my first dog it changed everything,” says Esha Mehta, who was born blind. Her yellow lab, Dragon, guides her along a bustling sidewalk. “It feels like I’m flying. I could never travel so fast, and move so confidently before.”

Celia Ernstrom’s anxiety and depression are only a few of the many symptoms of her Lyme disease, contracted early in life. “I know some people are skeptical about the idea of an emotional-support animal, but I can tell you that I really wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my cat,” says Celia.

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It may come as no surprise to most pet owners that animals can be some of the best therapists, teachers, and aids. What may surprise you is how many types of animals can be trained, the variety of disabilities and illnesses they support, and the ways they do so.

If your child struggles with a disability or illness, an animal may be a healing and enabling force. But there’s a significant distinction between service animals, therapy animals, and emotional-support animals. Here are some guidelines and examples of what defines each type, and how they help kids in different ways.

Service Animals

Like Dragon, the most well-known type of service animal is a guide dog. While an individual must be 16 years of age to qualify for a seeing-eye dog, service animals aid with many kinds of disabilities and illnesses, even for very young children. Unlike therapy and emotional-support animals, service animals are highly trained and narrowly defined.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service animal as “an animal that is specifically trained to do work or perform tasks for a disabled person.” While not formally included in the definition, the ADA permits the use of trained miniature horses as alternatives to dogs, and Capuchin monkeys are also a common helper for paralyzed individuals.

Willow Wonka, an eight-year-old British Labrador, has been the nearly constant companion of Adam Schwartz since he was eight years old. Now 16, Adam was diagnosed with diabetes when he was five. At that time, Diabetic Alert Dogs (DAD) were not common, but Laurie Schwartz, Adam’s mom, read an article about dogs that could be trained to scent blood-sugar changes.

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Willow is scent-trained using Adam’s saliva samples. She is able to signal an oncoming glycemic event—with different signals for highs and lows—to let Adam know that he is in danger even before he is symptomatic. Some DADs even open the refrigerator and bring food or medication.

Depending on air currents, Willow can alert accurately from the basement to the second story and even from the beach while Adam swims in the ocean. Willow sleeps with Adam at night, which is the most dangerous time for diabetics; most long-term diabetics die in their sleep. But unlike current monitoring technology, Willow never turns off, malfunctions, gets misplaced, or runs out of battery power.

Service animals offer many types of assistance from picking up dropped items and supporting mobility, to warning of an oncoming seizure or psychiatric episode. Parents of children with autism report that service dogs improve their child’s ability to express themselves and interact with siblings and peers. Service dogs can even help to calm anxiety, moderate behaviors, give medication reminders, and prevent self-harm for sufferers of trauma and PTSD.

“A service dog is definitely not the right fit for everyone,” says Schwartz. “They need to train continually. And there are just the daily challenges of navigating through life with an animal.”

This animal will not be a pet. Service animals are working animals, and it’s extremely important for them to stay focused on their job and their person. Other people petting, playing with, or feeding them threatens both their focus and their bond.

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To purchase a fully trained service dog, depending on the dog and the level of training, typically costs between $40,000-$60,000. However, there is an excellent chance that if your family qualifies you can be provided with the animal at partial or no cost (see Service Animal Resources).

Another option is to purchase or adopt an animal and train it yourself, like the Schwartz family did. They used the techniques they learned from Wildrose Kennels (no longer offering training, but similar services can be found at Canine Hope For Diabetics.

Therapy Animals

Therapy animals often are used at nursing homes, hospitals, clinics, or schools. They make unpleasant or uncomfortable situations less so. They increase motivation, are non-judgmental about a person’s needs and problems, and they keep people rooted in the present, rather than worrying about the future or the past.

Psychotherapist Elena Davis has partnered with animals in her practice for 15 years. She tends to work with big dogs because they give clients a sense of safety. Sometimes when clients are struggling with things that are just too hard or painful to express, they are able to tell the dog. Her current dog, Tank, a black lab, greets clients and escorts them into the office.

“It normalizes the experience and makes the office feel friendly,” explains Davis. “When people pet a dog or even just see a dog, happy hormones get released in the brain. Animals actually change our brain chemistry.” In this way, all animals are therapy animals, but not all animals are a good fit.

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The TimberNook Denver Metro at Hope Farms Project uses therapy animals to provide the ultimate sensory experience for kids to develop motor, cognitive, and social skills in an integrated, therapeutic environment.

“Often people with disabilities receive a lot of help, but this model allows them to be the caregivers, taking care of the farm and the animals,” says Lisa Kramer, founder and executive director of Hope Farms Project. “It’s a very empowering experience.”

At Hope Farms, different animals provide different sensory impact. Fletcher the bearded dragon helps kids build up tolerance and courage for new experiences and textures. That can be a catalyst for physical and emotional breakthroughs. Pickles the pig might help kids with learning disabilities to develop reading fluency and comprehension.

“We even had tarantulas and snakes at one point,” says Kramer. “The more people practice something, the better they get, so if they practice moving through a fear or aversion, the better they can conquer the fears and challenges related to a disability.”

In addition, horses are uniquely suited to work as therapy animals for many reasons. In hippotherapy, a type of equine therapy, the pelvic movement of the horse reproduces the proper walking motion of the human pelvis for the rider. This means that for people who have either lost, or never had, that natural movement, riding on a horse can inspire their bodies to achieve this normal motion in a way that nothing else can.

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Therapeutic riding uses less specific techniques and addresses a broader range of physical, cognitive, and emotional problems. Both therapies pair horses and riders with disabilities such as cerebral palsy, autism, Down syndrome, multiple sclerosis, or sight and hearing impairment. Equine therapy also addresses ADHD, anxiety disorders, mental illness, and impulse and anger control problems.

“Horses are particularly intuitive and sentient because they are animals of prey so their survival instinct keeps them hyperalert and aware of everything that is going on around them,” explains Marie Delmarle, an equine coach trained in animal assisted therapy. Delmarle works with individuals with autism, victims of abuse and trauma, and families with adopted children who experience dissociative and attachment disorders.

Kramer asserts that she can accomplish more with clients in an hour with a horse than in weeks of tradtional therapy.

Emotional-support Animals

Emotional-support animals are not always formally trained, and they include pretty much any species. The lines can be a little blurry because service animals certainly also provide emotional-support, and emotional-support animals often provide elements of service. The definition is mostly about training and legal access.

Emotional-support animals and their owners are not granted the same rights as service animals, but they do enjoy some consideration under the Fair Housing Act. When medically prescribed by a doctor they are allowed on airplanes and in “no pets allowed” hotels, restaurants, and other public facilities.

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Janie Hanson-Ernstrom and her daughters Sophia and Celia all suffer from Lyme disease. The family did not get their cat Isis as a support animal, but it became evident in Celia’s second year of high school that Isis was easing her Lyme-induced anxiety and depression. Her psychiatrist supported Celia’s decision to take Isis to college as an alternative to pharmaceuticals.

“When I’m having anxiety or a panic attack Isis grounds me. I hold her and focus on feeling her fur, her weight against me, and her purring and it focuses my thoughts and calms me down,” says Celia.

In addition, knowing that Isis relies on her and that even if she’s depressed she has to get up and feed and care for Isis motivates Celia to care for herself. “I had a lot of suicidal thoughts in high school, but I would always circle back to thinking about how Isis wouldn’t understand if I wasn’t here for her.”

Similarly, the Jenson family would say that their dog Aspen has truly changed their lives. Robynn and Camden Jenson have five children, four of them adopted, and their two sons from China are both deaf. Their younger son Judah, arrived at eight years old, having no ability to communicate at all, and having suffered severe trauma. The family purchased their golden retriever Aspen as a service dog, trained to know signs, but she operates mainly as an emotional-support dog.

“One of the most difficult things when Judah arrived was that he could not sleep. He had night terrors and was awake all night every night,” remembers Robynn. “We tried everything to make him feel safe and then we read about support dogs.”

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When Aspen joined the family, she curled up beside Judah and he slept through the night for the first time. Judah has slept every night since. He has gained 20 pounds, started interacting with people and thriving in school. “Judah would just lay his head on Aspen and sign ‘I love you’ over and over,” says Robynn. “She was the first being that Judah was able to trust.”

Service Animal Resources

Therapy Animal Resources

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