How Rescue Dogs Can Help Children With Disabilities


I volunteer with an animal rescue, and personally struggle with depression. My dog and the pups I foster are sometimes the one thing that can make me laugh. But this is not my story.

The animal rescue often sets up our events in pet stores, so people can see and interact with the animals prior to bringing them into a permanent home. These can be loud with dogs barking and busy with a lot of people looking. We adopted a puppy to a lovely set of parents with their daughter, I’m guessing around 12 years old. They said their daughter was autistic and they wanted a puppy that could go into special training to be a service animal for her.

She was kind of verbal about the dogs, with some repetition of words, and very interested in them. The parents were asking me about various puppies, but the girl was very drawn to one cage of puppies. The puppies, of course, licked her fingers as soon as they were in reach. They asked to get one out of the cage to see how she would react. I said to her, “Would you like to hold this puppy?” Her dad was right there and said he would hold the pup for her. I explained, “Daddy is going to hold the puppy for you, in case he gets wiggly.”

While they were spending some time off to the side with the pup, an older woman came up to me and said “That poor dog, tisk tisk.” I wish I had responded — at least said “that is rude” to the unkind woman, right away. But I was shocked into silence, and desperately hoped the parents and daughter did not overhear.

I wish I had said: numerous studies and personal experiences have shown that dogs have a great effect on children and people with assorted disabilities. Dogs can improve their quality of life, in part by making interactions with others less stressful. We, the rescue group, would be happy if every puppy could go to such a loving family. That family will really love that pup until it dies of old age. They will form a bond, care for the dog, and also get the dog really well trained. Every puppy and dog should get what that family will provide: a home filled with love where they are a valued family member.

Dear family: you are loving and attentive. I wish I had spoken up on your behalf at the time. I wish you the best with your training and really hope the dog is a huge benefit for your daughter. She now has a furry friend who loves her no matter what, and will always want to be with her.

Please consider if a rescue dog or puppy will fit into your family with the necessary training. A local pound may not have the resources to work with you much, but I think most good animal rescues are staffed by caring people who will be willing to help you find the right dog for your family. If you’re hoping to train the dog as a service dog, please be sure to research training options in your area first, as some programs only work with their own dogs or have waiting lists, particularly for working with children. Your local pet store might offer basic training, and can generally recommend other resources in your area. If you call or email a rescue group, please be patient as the “staff” are generally all volunteers, and they might be super busy at events. Best wishes!

I welcome messages with questions. In the NYC area, I can probably make some recommendations.

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Thinkstock photo by Jupiter Images.

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