Buffy Makes a Difference In Children's Therapy
by Barbara Frey, Companion Newf Committee Chair
Russell Kroger writes us about the special work of his companion Newf, Buffy. The following is from a term paper written by Althea Abaqueta, who is working towards her Master's degree. The author is one of a number of interns and therapists engaged by a special day care preschool in St. Louis. The identities of the children and the school itself have been changed to protect their privacy.
In March 1999, a day care preschool in St. Louis was selected as a site to observe how therapy dogs can be utilized to promote the development of children with special needs. Buffy, a certified therapy dog, and her owner visit the daycare preschool once a week for two hours. The purpose of the observations was to examine how the physical therapist and speech and language pathologist utilize Buffy in their therapy sessions, and how the children benefit from pet-facilitated therapy.
Three children between the ages of two and five were selected. Each child was observed while working with either the physical therapist or speech and language therapist-and Buffy. During each session, the dog's owner gave the dog verbal commands.
Jonathan was two years, nine months at the start of the sessions with Buffy. He was diagnosed with a 50 percent language delay. The first day that Jonathan met Buffy, he showed no fear as he ran to her, then hugged and kissed her. Jonathan and Buffy stood eye to eye with each other. The goals of the sessions with the speech and language pathologist (SLP) were for Jonathan to use words and gestures to communicate, and to practice and achieve good phonological sounds. Activities included identifying body parts of child and dog, making choices (either brushing the dog or playing fetch with the dog), giving water, taking turns, and taking the dog on walks. Each activity demonstrated to be a language-rich opportunity that was joyfully accepted by Jonathan. At the beginning of each session, Jonathan greeted Buffy with hugs and kisses, laughter, and squeals of delight. The SLP also reported that while working with Buffy, Jonathan produced more verbalizations.
Paul was five years, five months when he started physical therapy with Buffy. Paul was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and a seizure disorder. Buffy's appeal served as a motivational strategy with Paul, but her presence also functioned to ease the tension during physical therapy. The physical therapist stated that Buffy motivated Paul to engage in activities longer. For example, while riding the bike with Buffy, Paul would complete his route without crying. On occasions when Paul rode the bike without Buffy, the physical therapist stated that Paul would protest and stop at the halfway point. The therapist reported an activity in which Paul would lie on a mat on his stomach while the therapist rotated his legs and ankles. The therapist reported that Paul usually cried during this activity because it hurt. However, when Buffy laid next to him, he did not cry, and in fact, petted the dog, almost unaware he was undergoing therapy.
Alicia was two years, ten months, when she first started working with Buffy. Alicia was diagnosed with profound mental retardation, a seizure disorder, and cortical blindness. While attending the day care, Alicia would experience petit mal seizures and could have as many as five or more seizures in a ten-minute period. At the time of the observations, Alicia did not crawl or walk, she was nonverbal, and she constantly engaged in stereotypic behaviors such as rocking back and forth or side to side, head shaking, and thumb sucking.
The goals of the physical therapist were to provide Alicia with tactile stimulation, to increase her awareness of the environment so that eventually, she would reach out to explore and learn to manipulate herself in her environment. The first pet-facilitated session was not under observation, but the therapist reported that Alicia cried continuously and would not sit near or touch the dog. The second session was quite different. Alicia was sitting on a blanket in the playground. Shortly after Buffy lay next to her, Alicia put her hand on the dog's back and patted her. Alicia's hand continued to move around the dog's back. Alicia smiled, shook her head from side to side, and clapped her hands. She rocked back and forth against the dog, and tried to climb on top of the dog's back. There were several moments when she sat perfectly still next to the dog.
At the start of the third session, the dog put her head on Alicia's lap. Alicia rocked a little and then started to cry. After repositioning her, Alicia laid motionless on the blanket with her body in contact with Buffy's body. Alicia stopped crying. She rocked back and forth against the dog, rested her hand on the dog's back, and with both hands resting on the dog, she pushed herself up and repositioned herself next to the dog. She shook her head back and forth as she smiled and opened her eyes.
The next pet-facilitated session occurred right after Alicia's physical therapy. Alicia's legs were in braces and she was placed in a stander in which her entire body was restrained in an upright position. This was the first time Alicia used the stander. She cried profusely, even after she was removed from the stander and the leg braces were removed. Alicia was placed on a mat with the therapist sitting behind her and holding her, while Buffy sat next to them. Alicia cried, rocked hard, and sucked her thumb. After 15 minutes, the therapist moved away, so that Alicia was in contact with only the dog. Almost immediately, Alicia stopped crying. While sucking her thumb, she softly rocked side to side against the dog. A few minutes later she stopped rocking and lay motionless next to the dog for the next twenty minutes.
During Alicia's last session, Alicia was placed next to Buffy and allowed to do whatever she wanted. She made almost no physical contact with the therapist. She repeatedly touched Buffy, rocked against her, and scooted around the dog, moving herself in various positions. She eventually laid herself next to Buffy and remained motionless for about ten minutes as she sucked her thumb.
Alicia's behavior clearly indicated that she does not have any aversion toward the dog, and in fact, the dog's presence aided in relaxing her. She actively explored, touched and sought out the dog. Through careful observation, one may be able to speculate on what Alicia is thinking, what associations she is creating. Teachers' voices may be associated with food and diaper changing. The touch of the physical therapist may be associated with leg braces, standers and feeling uncomfortable. The feel of fur and the smell of a dog may be associated with feelings of rest, peace and no demands.
Buffy served several purposes in the therapy sessions of the three children 1 observed. With Jonathan, Buffy was a tremendous, motivational tactic, assisting the therapist in engaging the child in the activity for extended periods of time with fewer prompts of redirection. For Paul, Buffy's presence created a more relaxed atmosphere, transforming painful physical therapy sessions into games of playing fetch. For Alicia, Buffy provided tactile reassurance, not associated with any kind of demands, which aided in reducing the overall anxiety of physical therapy.
reprinted from NewfTide 1999