Part one of this post described two good reasons to include a pet in your family. Here are three more reasons pet ownership can be a helpful support strategy for ADHD.
Structure and accountability
Not only can kids cultivate relationships with pets, but they can learn to put systems and structures in place to care for them. Since kids with ADHD often have a difficult time finding the motivation to accomplish “boring” tasks, a pet offers the chance to make a household chore more “interesting.” Let’s be serious — feeding the dog is at least more compelling than washing the dishes!
In our home, our youngest child is expected to feed the dog before he feeds himself, twice a day. While our son is not yet completely independent in this task, it has provided a platform to teach him to set up systems, tweak them, and re-establish them as needed.
For example, recently we noticed our son had become a bit slack on remembering to feed the dog before himself. (This is common in ADHD world when systems become “boring” and difficult to continue). Keeping a note at his place at the table was no longer working, so we brainstormed about how he could make sure he handled this task. (As if on cue, the dog looked up at him with soft brown eyes and tilted her head as if to say, “What about me?” It was perfect!)
Our son decided to draw a picture of a dog to keep at his place at the table as a reminder, along with a really funny Valentine’s Day card he'd gotten from her. It’s too soon to say if it will work, but having to address this every so often is actually a great opportunity. It teaches him that his ADHD requires constant vigilance.
By learning to care for his dog—with a parental safety net so the dog doesn’t go hungry—our son is learning critical lessons about how his ADHD shows up, and what he’s going to need to do to manage it in his life.
As pet owners, we can’t afford to forget, for a moment, that our animals are just that—domesticated, maybe, but animals nonetheless. A girl and her dog can have the most wondrous relationship imaginable, but it is inherently dangerous. Success comes when you create a conscious environment and keep a safety mindset.
At one point, I had my doubts. There was a particular episode in Sasha’s youth when I was afraid we had made a big mistake. She had discovered a Brillo pad under the house and appeared with it in her mouth. I remember the face-off (nineteen years ago) as if it were yesterday: Rottweiler jaws clamped tight, dribbles of pink bubbles sliding down the chin and dripping to the ground. A stalemate. It is hysterically funny in retrospect, but at the time I was just hysterically terrified.
I knew Sasha loved me, but would she bite me instinctively, protecting her precious Brillo pad? It was certainly within the realm of possibility.
As we raised our three kids – and several of our friends’ kids, too – into a household of dogs, we taught them to have a healthy respect for all animals, no matter how domesticated. My kids (and my husband) never met a dog that was a stranger, so we taught them to control their impulsivity quite directly:
• approach new dogs cautiously,
• ask permission of their owners, and
• hold out the backs of their hands to be sniffed
If I could be afraid of my dear Sasha, then anything was possible. My kids learned to proceed with caution before playfulness - not an easy task for a passel of kids with ADHD! It’s worth noting here that my friendly, playful spouse had learned that lesson the hard way. In fact, you might say a big black chow had to bite him in the butt to teach him how to teach his kids to manage their impulsivity.
Comfort and companionship (and energy release)
True confession: Sometimes I get jealous of my dog. My kids talk to her and feed her. My husband plays with her on the floor. She gets the attention from those I love that I wish I got more often. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
There is a pure and healing energy that a well-loved animal brings into a home, sometimes coupled with a release for unbridled hyperactivity. Talk about a perfect recipe for ADHD success!
Pets invite us to take some time each day to relax and play. They offer friendship and companionship. They ask very little in return, except that we make the time to be with them, to be kind and playful, and to take care of their basic needs.
Pets teach us to:
• slow down
• pay attention to the fundamentals
• be kind
• enjoy life
Are there any more important lessons than those?
As an added benefit, some pets offer a physical outlet for excess energy. A great dog is willing to run, wrestle, and roll around on the ground with the kids, and becomes a walking buddy and accountability partner for parents. In an ideal world, that dog is also willing to sit quietly at your feet as you do your homework. That kind of friendship can be hard to find.
A special treat
Recently I had a discussion with my son about a structure for making sure the dog is fed. Since he was starting to feel a little “wrong,” I stopped the conversation to assure him that he’s doing a great job. I explained that it’s important to find structures that work for him, because we’re not always going to be around. To be successful, he’s going to have to learn to use systems to get done what he wants to get done. It was a great teachable moment.
And then I had an aha! moment: Feeding the dog is one of the hardest tasks I could give to a child with ADHD. I’m always talking about improvement instead of perfection, but feeding an animal is one situation where perfection is actually important. A 90% isn’t good enough. When I told my son that, he responded,“Yeah, mom, but I can get points for extra credit. I can give her treats!”
Animals change the playing field when you have kids in your home. Having a pet invites children to learn to communicate on another plane. It’s one of those little gifts of life that is difficult to express. You can't overestimate the peace and joy it can bring.
A longer version of this post appeared in the April 2013 issue of Attention magazine. Join CHADD and receive every issue!
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A member of CHADD's board of directors, Elaine Taylor-Klaus is a certified coach, parent coach, writer, educator, speaker, entrepreneur, and mother. She is the co-founder of ImpactADHD.com.