You can’t teach an old dog new tricks… but he might you!
T. was eight years old when I met him for the first time. It was immediately clear that he was sort of special. He was lively and pertly. Without asking, he immediately took some Lego stuff from my desk to play with it and finally crash it on the floor. During the conversation with his mother in which she also informed me about his ADHD diagnosis, he was jumping through the room, singing aloud and interrupting our conversation several times. He did not take any notice of his mother’s requests and admonitions. Unfortunately, he did not take any notice of me either and crashed my Batman bobble head figure … sigh! … . Just as T.’s mother mentioned that he is like this throughout the day and that there is no break at all, it became, in a wonderful way, pleasantly calm in my office … no shouting or running anymore … no more Lego or other collectibles hitting the floor … just a sweet little silence which I felt to have missed for ages.
T.’s mother and I seemed to notice the unexpected silence at the same time, because, as our eyes met, I realised that she felt the same emerging misgiving like me. Something really really terrible must had happened. … However … far from it … something actually very special and nice happened …
When T.’s mother and I looked through the room, we found T. on his knees close to my office door. He was gently, calmly and affectionately petting our dog Eli who just entered my office with my wife. Eli, an Australian shepherd, well trained by my wife. And despite him sometimes appearing to suffer from ADHD by himself (he once managed to completely destroy our living room sofa … within less than 20 minutes), he showed this wonderful behaviour that he withdrew himself if people were too active or intrusive, but immediately sought contact if people around him were calm, inconspicuous or appeared to be unhappy. T. immediately figured this out and interacted with Eli in a cheerful way, both having a good time (in particular with the head of the Batman bobble head figure) … leaving T.’s mother and me open-mouthed.
This was a profound and moving experience that kept me busy for a long time, and I still find it amazing that it was Eli who marked this starting point for me to engage myself with animal-assisted interventions (AAI).
“Of course, I am aware of the difficulties children with ADHD experience in their social, academic, and cognitive functioning. And, I am, of course, also aware that AAI (including animal-assisted therapy and animal-assisted activities) are not a superweapon that will cure ADHD or solve the problems related to ADHD. However, I wonder whether AAI may have the potential to support in the treatment of children with ADHD.”
In this context, I would like to point out that pharmacological treatment of ADHD, which is often considered as the most powerful treatment for ADHD, is also no cure at all and does also not normalise functioning of individuals with ADHD (Tucha et al., 2011). So drug treatment seems also not to be a superweapon in the treatment of ADHD, and in fact, we already assume that individuals with ADHD benefit from accompanying non-pharmacological treatments; so why excluding AAI? With regard to T. and his mother, I can only say that it seemed that they both learned at this day that there are situations, factors or possibilities allowing T. to better control some of his behaviour that one would describe as disruptive.
“Looking into the literature at that time was very disappointing as there was hardly any controlled study on AAI and ADHD.”
Even till now, there are less than a handful of studies on this topic. I was therefore very happy when some of my colleagues were willing to join me in thinking along this line and challenge the question whether the available literature on AAI in ADHD and other conditions would allow us to conclude that AAI bear some benefit for children with ADHD and their families. More specifically, we aimed to investigate the positive effects of AAI that were found for other conditions and disorders (e.g., autism spectrum disorder) in relation to the core symptoms and associated difficulties of ADHD. The thought that the effects of animals on children with other conditions can be generalized to children with ADHD seemed justified as it has already been demonstrated that the positive effects of animals on humans appear to occur mostly independently from the underlying diagnosis.
“And indeed, our literature study revealed that there is ample evidence to assume that several mechanisms of AAI, including calming, socializing, motivating, and cognitive effects, may be beneficial for the symptoms and difficulties children with ADHD and their families experience in daily life (Busch et al., 2016).”
Moreover, we found indications that AAI also have the potential to positively affect additional aspects associated with ADHD, such as depression, loneliness and parental mood. However, one has to emphasise that the mechanisms underlying these effects are, partly due to methodological limitations, not yet well understood and that more rigorous scientific research and randomized controlled trials are needed to investigate the effects of human–animal interactions on behavioural disturbances.
“Sadly, because of his advanced age, Eli did not live to see our study being published. Sorry Eli and thank you … for everything …
… oh, before I forget … welcome Grizzly, I hope you will be able to follow Eli’s footsteps, … pawprints ;-)”
Busch, C., Tucha, L., Talarovicova, A., Fuermaier, A.B.M., Lewis-Evans, B., & Tucha, O. (2016). Animal-assisted interventions for children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: A theoretical review and consideration of future research directions. Psychological Reports, 118, 292-331.
Tucha, L., Tucha, O., Sontag, T.A., Stasik, D., Laufkoetter, R., & Lange, K.W. (2011). Differential effects of methylphenidate on problem-solving in adults with ADHD. Journal of Attention Disorders, 15, 161-173.