Having a dog at home may encourage children with cerebral palsy (CP) or other disabilities engage in more daytime physical activity, a report finds.
Researchers at Oregon State University reported the case of a 10-year-old boy with CP who became more active and improved his motor skills and quality of life after an intervention program with the family dog. Their report, “Family Dog-Assisted Adapted Physical Activity: A Case Study,” appeared in the journal Animals.
The study started with standardized assessments of the child’s motor skills, quality of life, physical activity and human-animal bond. The eight-week intervention program consisted of weekly 60-minute sessions in a lab setting; activities included brushing the dog with each hand, playing fetch while alternating hands, balancing on a wobble board, and marching on a balancing disc.
“The dog would also balance on the wobble board, so it became a challenge for the child — if the dog can do it, I can, too,” author Megan MacDonald said in a news release. “It was so cool to see the relationship between the child and the dog evolve over time. They develop a partnership and the activities become more fun and challenging for the child. It becomes, in part, about the dog and the responsibility of taking care of it.”
Researchers assigned the boy at-home daily activities to complete with the dog, such as brushing it, playing fetch and going for daily walks. During these “homework” exercises, they measured his level of physical activity with an accelerometer worn by the boy. Similar measurements were taken after the intervention program to assess its efficacy.
Results revealed a significant improvement in the child’s emotional, social and physical health parameters.
“These initial findings indicate that we can improve the quality of life for children with disabilities, and we can get them to be more active. In this case, both are happening simultaneously, which is fantastic,” said MacDonald, an assistant professor at OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences. “The findings so far are very encouraging. There’s a chance down the road we could be encouraging families to adopt a dog for the public health benefits.”
The relationship between the boy and the dog — a year-old Pomeranian — also improved.
“A closer child-dog bond increases the likelihood of lasting emotional benefits and may also facilitate long-term joint activity at home, such as taking walks, simply because it is enjoyable for all involved,” MacDonald said.
The report is about one patient, but the intervention program has included several other families and their dogs. Researchers hope to secure funding to continue these studies and improve CP children’s lives.
“We’re also learning a lot from our child participants,” MacDonald said. “They’re teaching us stuff about friendship with the animal and the responsibility of taking care of a pet, which allows us to ask more research questions about the influence of a pet on the child and their family.”
To learn more about this program, contact Megan MacDonald at [email protected] to be included on an interest list.