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Pet therapy for Mentally Disabled Children

by Irina Gorelova (Scientist for ‘All of Us’),
translated by Slava Klimov

The program ‘Pet Therapy for Mentally Disabled Children’ at the Child and Teenager Adaptation Centre in the Fruzensky District of St. Petersburg, has been in action since 2004. Being more than an educative or health care body, the Centre aims at integrating disabled children and their parents back into an active social life, as alienation and social taboos regarding this topic can destroy personal (and familial) morale. Clients from vary from 1 to 30 years.

In spite of the fact that pet therapy has been around since Hippocrates' times, the theory of pet therapy was established only in the 1960s. Since that time, this method has become very popular in Western countries and at present pet therapy is used in Russia to help people recover from obstinate diseases. Our program target is to create better conditions to adapt Center visitors to “feel at home”, to become a creative person through the positive emotional environment of pet therapy. Developing and upbringing are considered to be the major targets, while education takes its place too.

Different methods are utilized in every lesson. However, as the main aim is sensory and emotional development, the acquaintanceship with pets, contemplation and comparison of them remains the core of each class. Thanks to a variety of ‘Pet Friends Club’, we are able to display many different animals: rodents (rats, hamsters, mice, ferrets), rabbits, guinea pigs, hedgehogs, small non-poisonous snakes, lizards, turtles, Madagascan cockroaches, hens, budgerigars (parrots). All of them are calm non-aggressive animals, which are used to human interaction and to being handled. Every class employs approximately 3-4 animals, and no more, otherwise children become easily distracted. Pet interaction broadens the possibilities to enhance tactile and visual impulses, impulses which result in the child’s positive emotional output. Creative assignments related to the animals seen, heard and felt facilitate children to adapt to life’s realities, to increase their belief in their own capabilities, and to grant them pride in their own work. Simultaneously, the Centre’s exhibitions of drawings and handicrafts created during classes help to encourage this goal too.

Classes help children to overcome fears and uncertainty, as well as to evolve their creative attitude. Pet therapy results in a child’s high spirits, improved communication skills, as well as creative and play skills amongst groups, as many of them do not go to primary or secondary schools. Rather often an 8 or 10 year-old child clenched to their mothers’ lap, sat on the sofa in the corner of the nursery, turned away from the teacher or other children, hid his or her hands while we while others were stroking a rabbit. Later on this child grew to be an active participant, being the first to feel a snake or to find out and tell other children about the new birds and animals. This procedure has rather extraordinary results for children, parents and teachers alike, despite the fact that the process is slow and sometimes capricious. For example, one of our autistic children was afraid of animals and people, and stroked an animal in our centre three years ago. At present she is 15, and regularly attends the Centre with her mother, who reports that each class leads her daughter to feel at ease, express her thoughts clearly and feel more positive.

From these results, parents wish to adopt a pet, so that the positive experience in class is not interrupted. A child becomes mindful and thoughtful towards others and begins their relations with other children in the class more easily. Centre specialists attending each class highly appreciated the program and started to use it in their own research and work, combining this experience with theory. Psychologists contend that a child gets an opportunity to learn more about the world by experiencing different emotions - fear, happiness, surprise, interest, thus broadening their horizons through touching, contemplation and drawing. The most important thing is that they may share their emotions, experience and knowledge with others: this is the main ambition of the social program ‘All of Us’. Speech therapists and social workers add that this activity leads to positive influence upon the child’s speech functions, for example, building a more comprehensive vocabulary.

Thus, we may hold that children’s sociability increases as well as their emotional and psychological self. Additionally, they develop an ability to verbalize and express themselves as well. More importantly, it helps disabled children adapt to our ever changing world.

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