Can Dogs Help Kids Affected By The Opioid Crisis?

By Paul Gaita 05/02/18

A new study aims to determine if dogs can help reduce stress and anxiety for kids in child protective services. 

a child and a dog sitting on a terrace

A wealth of research supports the notion that owning a pet or having access to an animal for therapeutic purposes can have positive effects on individuals contending with a wide range of issues, from stress and anxiety to social behavior and physical conditions like high blood pressure and heart rate.

Now, a team of researchers is hoping to use therapy dogs as a means of treating families and especially children who have been impacted by the opioid crisis.

The goal of the study is to determine if an animal can help reduce stress and anxiety related to placement in child services or the relationship with parents in court-mandated arrangements due to opioid-related issues. 

Researchers at Ohio State University conceived the study as a means of tackling the opioid crisis through a segment of the population that is not immediately considered when considering the impact of dependency on a community.

"I think sometimes a victim that is not always thought of initially is the child who is not a substance abuser themselves, but still has the negative effects of that in their family," said Dr. Kelly George, co-director at the Center for Human-Animal Interactions Research & Education at Ohio State, and the lead investigator for the study.

Dr. George and her collaborators will link six dogs and their handlers with 20 children in Athens County Children Services as part of the pilot study. The dogs and their handlers will sit with the children during court-mandated visits with their parents.

The dogs in question are not service dogs, or dogs that provide specific support to an owner with disabilities; rather, therapy dogs are trained to react and respond to individuals under their owner's guidance, such as accepting a gentle touch or word to encourage a sense of calm.

"We see that [the kids] have issues with anxiety or depress and stress, and again, it just seemed like the perfect marriage to the idea of K9 therapy," said George.

The opioid crisis has caused the number of children removed from parental custody and placed with either relatives or in foster homes to rise significantly in the past decade; in Ohio, it was responsible for a 19% increase in 2016, while the number of children in that predicament grew by 40% in Vermont between 2013 and 2016.

The Athens County agency, which will link children and families with the study, has 183 children under its care.

Pet therapy specialists believe that the study could yield positive results. Lucinda Miller, an extension specialist with 4-H Youth Development at Ohio State, whose PetPALS program will provide the dogs, said that individuals are "more relaxed" and "less stressed" after interacting with therapy dogs. She believes that kids will benefit from such a connection, too. "They can identify with that animal, where maybe they can't identify with people, per se," she said.

The Ohio State study is expected to launch this fall, and if successful, its authors hope to expand its reach across the state and beyond its borders. Regardless of its eventual reach, Dr. George said that the study will facilitate something very special for its participants.

"This is one way for us to kind of reach out to the community," she noted.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.