New research shows that therapy dogs can make speech therapy more effective — and fun — for children.
For some children, learning language can be very challenging, making speech therapy sessions stressful and not much fun.
But all that changes when Pita, a lovable Labrador-golden retriever, is involved.
“My students love playing Jenga and the Honeybee Tree games with Pita. They are encouraged to say a target word or sentence and Pita will pull out a game piece with her mouth,” said Jennifer Yost, a speech-language pathologist in Orange County, California, who works with Pita.
Pita is a facility dog from nonprofit Canine Companions for Independence. She’s part assistant, part cheerleader, and all-around talented dog.
With over 60 commands under her furry belt, Pita can open and close doors, pick up fallen objects, and even play dress-up.
“She dresses up in numerous outfits,” said Yost, “and children are encouraged to create narrative stories to work on sequencing, perspective taking, and expressive language.”
She’s also part of a growing number of programs that use therapy dogs to help children improve their language use and comprehension.
One of these is the Pawsitive Play Program at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, where therapy dogs encourage kids during physical, occupational, and speech therapy. The dogs that work here even have a badge and get a lunch break, just like other hospital workers.
In Ottawa, Canada, the Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.) program pairs children with canine reading companions. The dogs can’t read, but they’re great listeners, giving the kids a chance to practice their oral language skills.
As any dog lover will attest to, having a dog around makes any activity more enjoyable. But therapy dogs are more than just fun.
They can motivate children to work harder or help kids relax when speech therapy gets too challenging.
“There have been numerous times when a child was struggling to produce a sound or shut down during a difficult task,” said Yost, “and Pita instinctively relieved their stress by nudging their hand or rolling on her back as if to say ‘It’s OK if it’s hard for you. I’ll still love you if you pet me.’”
Yost said Pita’s skill as a nonjudgmental listener allows children to practice speech and language without fear of being criticized or made fun of.
A small number of researchers have been studying the benefits of having a therapy dog in speech therapy sessions.
One recent study found that therapy dogs like Pita might make speech and language therapy sessions more effective than therapy alone.
The study, which was published September 19 in the journal Anthrozoös, included 69 nursery-school children with developmental dysphasia.
This condition affects a child’s ability to form words, communicate, and understand what others are saying. Like other speech and language problems, it can affect a child’s quality of life both now and as they grow.
Children in the study participated in either traditional speech therapy or speech therapy with Agáta, a female middle-aged Peruvian hairless dog. Researchers followed up with children 10 months later to see how their language use had improved.
Researchers found that when a therapy dog took part in the sessions, children were better able to mimic communication signals. This included copying facial expressions such as narrowing the eyes, shutting the eyes, filling up the cheeks with air, and smiling.
Children were also more motivated and open to communicating when Agáta was present. And they displayed authentic, natural expressions when interacting with her.
The researchers said in a press release that more research is needed, especially with a larger group of children, to know how beneficial therapy dogs will be for helping kids with language.
Other studies, though, have found some benefit of therapy dogs for helping adults with language problems and children with developmental disorders. These studies are also small.
Children of all levels and abilities may enjoy having a dog reading companion, but those who need more help with language may benefit the most.
Yost said that Pita has greatly impacted some of her students on the autism spectrum.
“While children with autism may have difficulty engaging in eye contact with adults or peers,” said Yost, “they often engage in eye contact spontaneously with Pita.”
Pita can even respond to commands from electronic communication devices that provide language help for children with speech difficulties.
Much of Pita’s magic, though, happens without the kids even noticing.
“Often, the child thinks they are just playing with their buddy Pita,” said Yost, “but in reality, we are addressing all of their goals within naturalistic play.”