Meet the “Superdogs”: Therapy, Service and Emotional-Support Dogs That Improve Life for Kids and Adults

Animals have helped human beings in many capacities throughout history. Livestock has provided us with food and clothing, horses have transported us from place to place and birds have delivered messages for us.

Perhaps of all the animals that have assisted humans, none are as ever-present in modern life as dogs. Our canine companions have performed jobs and services for humans in countless environments around the world. We consider them partners — assisting law enforcement in K-9 units; rescuers — unearthing survivors following natural disasters; and even supervisors — herding sheep and other livestock.

However, the vital role that dogs play in the lives of humans extends far beyond the practical. Dogs have also served as our loyal companions, our trusted confidantes and, some might say, even our beloved significant other. In the past decade, pet funerals and “aftercare” services available for pets, including dogs, have become a booming business.

Though we appreciate dogs for their intelligence, loyalty and trainability — as evidenced by the many services they perform for us each and every day — it is the more intangible, unquantifiable characteristics that we have come to value above all else. It is not simply a matter of what dogs do for us, but it is how they make us feel. Dogs are good for us! Research has shown that dogs can positively influence our overall sense of well-being, improve our health and enhance mental strength.

It is not simply a matter of what dogs do for us, but it is how they make us feel.

Who are these superdogs? Let’s move beyond the traditional roles dogs have played and look at the softer side of canine careers.

  • Therapy Dogs. Therapy dogs can be found offering comfort and love in nursing homes, hospitals, therapy clinics, schools and many other facilities. They can be virtually any breed, but must be evaluated and receive training and typically work in teams with their owners. Reading dogs, in particular, have become more visible in schools. Because dogs are great listeners, both children and adults who struggle with reading find that reading to a dog is a pleasure. Dogs are nonjudgmental, empathic and loveable listeners. Grab a book, snuggle up and get reading!
  • Service Dogs. People recognize these dogs by the vests that they typically wear while on duty. Service dogs have been individually trained to perform a specific task for individuals who have physical, cognitive or hidden disabilities. They undergo rigorous training and are protected by laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act in all 50 states. They can be trained to open doors, alert owners when a seizure is imminent, pick up dropped objects, and other amazing tasks! Families who have children with autism and veterans diagnosed with PTSD are just two groups of people who have reported that their service dog has allowed them to live more independently. High-fives for Fido!
  • Emotional Support Dogs. Providing companionship and support to children and adults suffering from a variety of emotional and mental conditions are what these dogs do best. From dusk until dawn, their job is offering comfort and unconditional love to those with depression, anxiety, panic attacks and other disorders.

Jumah, a black lab, visits an elementary school in Brooklyn every day as part of the “Comfort Dog Pilot Program” in nearly 40 New York City public schools. Here, first-graders in read to Jumah. Special education teacher Christa Bee Wiggin says, “The dog doesn’t judge them; he doesn’t care if they make mistakes, so they feel more comfortable.” Photo and caption by Marj Kleinman.

Speech therapist Mary Vitale uses Jumah to motivate kindergarteners with special needs. They practice using a strong voice to give commands and using direct eye contact with him. They also pet him while speaking, increasing the fluidity of their speech. Photo and caption by Marj Kleinman.

Teacher Christa Bee Wiggin uses Jumah to teach social-emotional learning (SEL) using the “Mutt-i-grees Curriculum,” created by North Shore Animal League. Today’s lesson was about identifying needs. He is also used for crisis de-escalation, behavior intervention and emotional support. Photo and caption by Marj Kleinman.

Cristen Carson Reat is the co-founder and program director of BridgingApps, a program of Easter Seals Greater Houston. Cristen holds a M.A. degree from the University of Texas at Austin, graduated from the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, and is certified through the Assistive Technology Applications Program at California State University. She is the mother of two sons, one of whom has Down syndrome. Cristen is a founding member of Toca Boca’s diversity advisory board.

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When Screen Time Becomes a Lifeline: How Technology Impacts Children with Special Health Care Needs

On a sunny afternoon in Houston, the hallway fills with parents, grandparents and babysitters glancing at their watches and waiting patiently. Suddenly the big glass door opens and one by one, young children emerge with lunch boxes, backpacks and plastic bags. Some are chattering away, a few reach for their parent’s hand, and others begin roughhousing with their siblings.

richard_tchOne young boy with light brown hair and beautiful green eyes walks out smiling and plops down into a chair. He is wearing what appears to be a lime green messenger bag slung across his shoulder. With a brief glance up at his mother, he quickly moves the green bag onto his lap, bends his head in concentration and begins to tap the front of it with his finger. The word “park” is spoken aloud, not by the boy, but by the digitized voice coming from the iPad he grasps in his small hands. He eagerly holds it up to his mother, and she smiles excitedly, affirming his request by saying, “So you want to go to the park?” His smile grows as he stands up and begins to walk toward the door with a spring in his step.

Similar scenes are played out thousands of times each day by children across the country who bound out of school with their parents and caregivers to begin the second part of their day. The difference is that the boy described above — 9-year-old Richard — happens to be nonverbal.

“He was completely closed off to the world”

Several years ago, this interaction would have played out quite differently for Richard, and it would have been characterized by a lengthy and frustrating guessing game as to what he was trying to tell his mom. Richard’s parents, Laurel and Mark, describe it this way: “Prior to our finding the iPad, we had no real way of knowing what Richard wanted or needed. He was completely closed off to us and to the rest of the world.”

Richard was born in 2007 with cognitive delays resulting from Down syndrome, autism and a seizure disorder. He struggles with other chronic health challenges that do not affect him cognitively, but “have physical ramifications that play into his day-to-day life,” Laurel says. In spite of his disabilities, he maintains an enthusiastic approach to life and transfers that enthusiasm to everyone with whom he comes into contact.

Richard uses an app on his iPad mini called Proloquo2Go that works as an alternate way to communicate by displaying pictures with labels that replace speech. Each picture paired with text “speaks” the word for Richard when touched. The app is continuously customized for him by his speech therapist, Betsy, in collaboration with Mark and Laurel, based on his language development and most frequently used words and phrases, such as “I want,” “yogurt,” “elevator” and “park.” Like other apps for augmentative and alternative communication, or AAC, Proloquo2Go offers a range of child and adult voices from which to choose. Children feel empowered by choosing the voice, since the voice will speak for them and become their voice. Recently Richard changed his voice to Josh, an American English speaking male child voice to “more accurately reflect his age and stage in life,” explains Mark.

Screen time = a lifeline

Like Richard, many children who cannot speak due to disability, injury or genetic condition often possess receptive language — the ability to understand what is said to them — but lack the ability to express what they want to say. While touch-based technology has existed for decades, the recent surge in affordable consumer products like smartphones and tablets has benefited children with disabilities and chronic illness like Richard, and their families, in many unexpected ways. While hot-button issues involving mobile technology and amounts of screen time play out in the media among parents and child development experts, countless families consider access to screen time for their children (and themselves) as a lifeline.

“We could not be the parents we want to be for Richard without this technology and the independence it affords him,” Mark explains. “We no longer have to wonder what our son wants or needs. He is able to tell us, and he does so emphatically! As he has gained experience using the technology, his sense of humor, which was essentially hidden for the first five years of life, has also begun to emerge. As it turns out, he is a mischievous little rascal!”

proloquo2go

Screenshot from Proloquo2Go

Mobile devices can be a supportive tool for patients

The transformative impact that mobile technology has had on thousands of families like Richard’s in recent years is nothing short of remarkable. Not only can applications paired with a handheld device assist with communication for a child who cannot speak, but it can also fill a critical need for a family who is caring for one of the 11.2 million children living with chronic illness or disability in the U.S. These families struggle with information overload, unfamiliar medical terminology, the disruption and isolation of chronic illness, and regular hospitalizations. Long-term hospital stays can be especially devastating for children, whose social lives usually revolve around school.

The transformative impact that mobile technology has had on thousands of families like Richard’s in recent years is nothing short of remarkable.

With affordable mobile technology at one’s fingertips, however, managing complex medical conditions, receiving support from loved ones, and even staying connected with school during hospital stays can be more manageable. BridgingApps, a program of Easter Seals Greater Houston that focuses on using mobile devices with people who have disabilities, has witnessed the sharp rise in mobile device use in recent years, noting that 77 percent of adults currently own a smartphone. Because the devices are easy to use, portable and widely available, BridgingApps, in collaboration with Texas Children’s Hospital, has developed a curriculum for hospitals to teach patients and families self-sufficiency using mobile devices as a supportive tool during a hospital stay and after discharge. In a hospital setting, a Digital Trainer conducts short teaching sessions with families in collaboration with a patient’s health care team that includes patient education, health information management, organization tools and strategies for following discharge recommendations.

Even the youngest patients are empowered

When utilized by patients and their families who are experiencing long-term health related issues, mobile technology becomes an efficient solution for addressing the diverse special needs of families. Accessing a patient portal, using a scanner app instead of paying a service to fax documents, creating a simple communication board and videotaping therapy sessions are some examples of how families can benefit from the immediacy of a smartphone or tablet. Learning how to leverage the power of mobile technology to cope with the challenges of disability and chronic illness empowers families — and even the youngest patient — to be a part of their health care team and can be life changing. For anyone who has played phone tag with doctors, driven across town to use a fax machine, played a guessing game with someone nonverbal due to illness or injury, or tried keeping up with immunization records for routine physicians visits — mobile tech can be a sanity saver.

What kinds of apps do families find helpful? Free apps like Caresync, Skype, CaringBridge and MyChart offer powerful solutions already in one’s pocket to access much-needed support and information that can provide relief for the emotional ups and downs of caring for a medically fragile child. Laurel agrees: “Because of the variety and seriousness of many of Richard’s medical conditions, having the ability through MyChart to link these conditions and their treatments to all of his various doctors has been critical.”

After several years of practice, Richard is learning to communicate with his family and caregivers about what he would like to do, what he would like to eat and even with whom he would like to do these activities. The sense of autonomy that this technology affords Richard has been dramatic. His frustration level when it comes to articulating his thoughts has diminished significantly, and the resulting joy that is at the core of his personality takes center stage with more regularity. No longer are his day-to-day needs “trapped inside his own head,” Laurel enthuses.

richard_camille3Richard’s extended family and friends celebrate the transformation that technology has made in his life. They are impressed by “what’s going on in his brain,” now that he can express it using technology. The only barriers are in other people’s unfamiliarity or lack of proficiency in using the technology themselves, but generally speaking, people are very patient with Richard in settings when he is using technology to communicate.

Cristen Carson Reat is the co-founder and program director of BridgingApps, a program of Easter Seals Greater Houston. Cristen holds a M.A. degree from the University of Texas at Austin, graduated from the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, and is certified through the Assistive Technology Applications Program at California State University. She is the mother of two sons, one of whom has Down syndrome. Cristen is a founding member of Toca Boca’s diversity advisory board.

5 Tech Resources to Support Families with Illnesses or Disabilities

Proloquo2Go

By AssistiveWare

Proloquo2GoProloquo2Go_icon is an award-winning symbol-supported communication app that provides a voice to over 150,000 individuals who cannot speak. The app is designed to promote language development and grow communication skills. Its innovative features support users of all ages, parents, teachers and therapists to quickly personalize the vocabulary and settings.

  • Tip: When considering alternative communication, have fun trying out sample voices from nine countries with a variety of accents for kids and adults.

Price: $249.99
BridgingApps Review
iTunes

Simply Sayin’ – Medical Jargon for Kids

By MediaKube, LLC

simply_sayin_iconThe award-winning Simply Sayin’™ app uses pictures, sounds and a kid-friendly glossary of terms to facilitate clear conversations between the health care provider, child and family. Used by child life specialists in hospitals around the world, the app also gives parents a way to promote positive health care experiences for their kids before heading to see the doctor.

  • Tip: Before your child’s next well-check visit with the doctor, use the drawings section of the app to review the parts of the body with your child in a fun, relaxed way to prepare them for what to expect.

Price: Free
BridgingApps Review
iTunes
Google Play

CareSync

By CareSync, Inc.

caresync_icon

CareSync is available via the web or on mobile devices to make it simple to access, organize and securely share your and your loved ones’ important health information. This powerful software functions as a personal or family health and medical information organization system that puts you in control of how and when you share your health information. CareSync empowers families with information and encourages people to be an active part of their health care team.

  • Tip: Download the free version of the app and practice uploading your child’s immunization records and sharing them with your child’s school, family member or summer camp, when needed.

Price: Free with in-app purchases
BridgingApps Review*
iTunes
Google Play 
*App is also web-based.

CaringBridge

By CaringBridge.org

caringbridge_app_iconThe purpose of CaringBridge is to connect people with the support of family and friends, and it is a self-described “caring social network.” It transforms your personal connections into instant support that can also be shared and expanded to assist someone going through a difficult life change, such as an emergency hospital visit, an unexpected injury or diagnosis of disease, premature birth or lengthy rehabilitation.

  • Tip: Once you have created a free account, upload a picture of yourself or your loved one, then write four sentences to share what it will mean to you to have consistent support on your CaringBridge page.

Price: Free
BridgingApps Review*
iTunes
Google Play 
*App is also web-based.

MyChart

By Epic

mychart_iconBy creating a free MyChart account you can manage your health information and communicate with your doctor on your mobile devices, including Apple Watch. With MyChart you can securely review test results, medications and immunization history; stay in touch with your doctor; manage your appointments; view and pay bills; access your family’s health information and more.

  • Tip: Once you have created a free account, send a message to your physician letting them know that you would like to communicate and receive appointment summaries via MyChart.

Price: Free
BridgingApps Review*
iTunes
Google Play
*App is also web-based.

Cristen Carson Reat is the co-founder and program director of BridgingApps, a program of Easter Seals Greater Houston. Cristen holds a M.A. degree from the University of Texas at Austin, graduated from the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, and is certified through the Assistive Technology Applications Program at California State University. She is the mother of two sons, one of whom has Down syndrome. Cristen is a founding member of Toca Boca’s diversity advisory board.