Dogs help us to feel calm. For those of us who suffer from anxiety, our furry confidantes mean something so much more. Read on to learn more about therapy dogs and the vital role they play…
Anxiety is a nervous disorder characterized by a state of excessive uneasiness and apprehension, typically with compulsive behavior or panic attacks. According to the ADAA, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, approximately 8% of children and teenagers experience an anxiety disorder, and most develop symptoms before the age of 21. Children with untreated anxiety disorders are at higher risk to perform poorly in school, miss out on important social experiences, and engage in substance abuse. Their anxiety can often also affect their families, as their shyness and nervousness can cause panic attacks and fear of being in certain places and around strangers.
Service dogs are proven to be highly effective at treating anxiety and improving the lives of children affected by it and their families. In addition to providing medical assistance – using their keen senses by alerting of panic attacks – and assistance with small tasks like opening doors and turning on light switches, their presence in a child’s life can improve the child’s confidence and the family’s peace of mind.
This holiday season, we are proud to partner with Paws and Affection, a local non-profit organization, who specializes in training and placing service and companion dogs with children and young adults under 21 years of age who suffer from a variety of disorders, including anxiety.
I spoke to Laura, Executive Director, and Susie, Training Director, to learn more about their organization and what raising a therapy dog actually entails.
Every year, 4 to 6 dogs, usually Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers or Poodles, will be selected for training. To ensure the success of every trained dog, it is important to select dogs with a good health history, a good disposition, love working with people, and that are of a certain size. The pups start training as early as 8 weeks, and at about 1 year of age they will be matched with a child. They will spend the following 12 months training according to that child’s specific needs. Once that training is completed, 12 weeks will be spent working with the child until they are both ready to live together. Once the dog has been placed with their match, Paws and Affection will do yearly check ins, but Susie will remain available for questions or any additional training that may be needed throughout the dog’s life.
Some of the skills a dog will learn are:
ALERTING OR INTERRUPTING AN ANXIETY ATTACK
Usually a child about to have an anxiety attack will show physical symptoms of nervousness like shaking their leg. The dog can be trained to recognize those signals and react by creating a distraction – maybe nudging the child or bringing them a toy — forcing the child to bring their attention back into the moment, hopefully avoiding the anxiety attack. The dog can also be trained to alert a parent or adult, getting their attention and leading them back to the child.
A child suffering from anxiety may feel nervous around large crowds. The dog can be trained to act as a barrier between the child and the crowd, or it can be trained to find an exit, leading the child away from the crowd.
The dog will learn to lay on the child, sometimes with its whole body, sometimes simply by placing a paw on the child’s foot, providing a feeling of safety and comfort. This therapeutic technique is the reason why size is an important aspect of selecting a dog.
One of their recent trainees, a beautiful Golden Retriever named Maggie, was placed with a young West Chester University student last summer, and today she helps her deal with the anxieties of navigating the campus, going to class, and public speaking.
The acquiring, training and placing of each service dog costs $25,000 and Paws and Affection covers this cost solely through fundraising. This holiday season, Free People has pledged to donate up to $50,000 to this incredible organization through the sales of our exclusive FP x Found collection, and through our Instagram initiative – a dollar donation for each photo of you and your fur friend tagged #FPcares @freepeople and @paws_and_affection.
Join us in making a difference in the life of a child and visit Paws and Affection for more information.