Shelter Dogs Help Improve Moods Of Teenagers With ADHD
June 4, 2013

Shelter Dogs Help Improve Moods Of Teenagers With ADHD

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Teenagers living in residential treatment centers can have their moods improved if they receive regular visits from a canine companion, a researcher from Washington State University (WSU) has discovered.

In what is being called the first study to demonstrate how teens living in such facilities can benefit from interacting with these kinds of animals, Lindsay Ellsworth, a doctoral candidate in animal sciences at the Pullman, Washington-based institution, helped organize meet-ups were patients could help feed, brush and play with shelter dogs.

Ellsworth organized a regular Friday afternoon meet-up between about four shelter dogs from the Spokane Humane Society and a group of teenage boys at the Excelsior Youth Center, also in Spokane.

One group visited with the dogs for approximately one hour, while a second group participated in other activities, such as playing video games, basketball, or pool. Both before and after their respective activities, the participants identified 60 mood descriptors on a scale of one to five on a self-reporting emotion scale called the PANAS-X.

“We found one of the most robust effects of interacting with the dogs was increased joviality,” Ellsworth said in a statement. “Some of the words the boys used to describe their moods after working with the dogs were 'excited,' 'energetic' 'and happy.'”

Those teens that spent time with the shelter dogs also showed an increase in positive affect (the psychological term for the experience of feeling or emotion), attentiveness and serenity, as well as a decrease in overall sadness, she added. Many of those patients were being treated for ADHD, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“I was surprised, during the trial period, how calm the boys were around the dogs and at how outbursts and hyperactivity diminished. It was something you could observe like night and day,” Ellsworth explained.

When she asked the boys what they liked most about working with the dogs, some of them said that they enjoyed playing with them and giving them treats. One responder said that spending time with the dogs “lets me get my mind off things,” while another said that he liked “showing a lot of love to the dogs.”

Robert Faltermeyer, executive director of the Youth Center, praised the program, calling it “an opportunity for kids in a real chaotic life, making unhealthy choices, to focus in on a specific task with an animal.”

“It empowers them to make positive changes even on the simplest scale of correcting the animal's behavior,” he added. Those exposures could be eye openers for the patients, Faltermeyer noted, saying that they could “build some internal capacity for them to say, 'Hey, I think I'm capable of changing my life.´”

According to Ellsworth, the brains of the boys produce dopamine, the so-called feel-good organic chemical, when they anticipate the time when they can interact with the dogs. Furthermore, she said that the social companionship provided by the canine companions could also stimulate opioid release.

“Using natural stimuli like dogs, she said, could help restore the normal function of these critical chemical messengers after the brain's chemistry has been altered through drug use,” the University explained.

Animal behaviorist Ruth Newberry, Ellsworth's doctoral advisor at WSU, said that the study suggests that animal interaction could become a “novel, cost-effective and beneficial complement to traditional treatments. This could be a win-win innovation for everyone involved, including the dogs,” she added.

This summer, Ellsworth will be increasing the number of visits to the Youth Center to twice-weekly. During this phase of her research, she is reportedly hoping to learn how the dogs can influence teenagers' engagement in group therapy and cooperation in structured activities. Ellsworth predicts that the higher levels of compliance and engagement that teens exhibit in these programs, the more likely they will be able to benefit from treatment.