My daughter’s begging for a dog! Thoughts? — Doting Dad, Danvers
The thought of getting a dog is enough to put the wag in any kid’s tail, but for some spirited kids, pooch-ownership isn’t just about making a new best friend: it’s a life-changing experience — one that is simply divine!
When 6-year-old Preston Laase first met Kona — an unruffled yellow Labrador retriever — it was instant puppy love. Preston’s mom Nicole says, “When Kona arrived, Preston seemed to know Kona was his dog. Preston doesn’t normally show a lot of emotion, but he was giggling. That was special right there.”
Kona is an autism-assist dog from Can-Do-Canines, a Minnesota organization dedicated to providing mobility, hearing, diabetes, seizure and autism assistance dogs to the kids and adults who need them. Trained over a two-year-period, this doggy healer has one important job: to soothe Preston when out and about and prevent him from running off, so that Preston (and his parents) can enjoy a simple activity like a trip to the store.
Until Kona’s arrival, shopping was a difficult experience for Preston. As a child with severe autism, the stimulating store environment with different people, noises and bright scenery caused him major anxiety. Preston’s mom Nicole says, “We couldn’t really take Preston anywhere because he’d get so anxious. We spent a lot of time going for walks, playing outside or visiting an adventure gym. It was a very secluded life.”
However, under the safe keeping of his furry guardian angel, store trips have become manageable. And that’s a miracle! Wearing a specially made jacket that tethers both Preston and Kona together and with a handle for Preston to hold, these new pals stride the store together. Nicole says, “If Preston tries to run, Kona will hold her spot, so he can’t. And if Preston does have a meltdown, such incidents are over quicker now that he has Kona beside him to calm him. ”
The result? “Preston’s safe,” his mom says. “If we need to go grocery shopping, we don’t even think about it. And with Kona around, we’ve even managed a couple of visits to a restaurant, too!”
Kona’s animal magic has extended into other areas of Preston’s life. Though many kids have trouble either getting to sleep or staying asleep, Preston’s hyperactivity and anxiety heightened those issues. Before Kona’s arrival, Preston typically slept between four and six hours a night — and so did his mom and dad.
“Preston always had a hard time sleeping and frequently woke up screaming and crying,” Nicole says. “But from that first night with Kona lying at his feet, we were able to tuck Preston in around 8 p.m and he slept around the clock until 7 the next morning. We couldn’t believe it. Now when Preston wakes up, we hear him talking and giggling with Kona, but he stays in bed. With Preston able to sleep better he’s happier and more alert — and so are we.”
Kona — like all dogs — has a healing presence that ensures Preston can calm down and decompress. Research shows that just the act of stroking a dog can help lower blood sugar, facilitates the release of a relaxation hormone and cuts down on levels of stress. As Dean Koontz notes, “Petting, scratching, and cuddling a dog (is) as soothing to the mind and heart as deep meditation and almost as good for the soul as prayer!”
If Kona has helped Preston sleep more easily and deal more calmly with anxiety causing situations, it’s the paw-print she’s made on his heart and the companionship she’s brought to his life — like the day Preston was sick and she lay beside and didn’t stir a (dog) hair. That might be her most enduring doggy gift.
Dr. Alan Beck, director for the Center of Human Animal Bond notes, “Dogs are great for kids. They become a confidante. They don’t judge, they pay attention, they give love, they are intuitive to a kid’s needs and they can be incredibly rewarding.” And he’s right! For no matter whether a dog is an Autism Assist dog like Kona, or a lapdog like my own dog, all dogs share those rope-pulling, ball-fetching traits that bring a smile to a kid’s face and help them ground and center. And, a dog’s warm shoulder, listening ear and lick-smothering mouth (which will never interrupt, disagree or answer back) offer their own form of mind, body and spirit therapy that helps kids feel better about themselves and is more often called the healing power of love.
John Grogan (of Marley and Me fame) says, “Marley taught me about living each day with unbridled exuberance and joy, about seizing the moment and following your heart. He taught me to appreciate the simple things in life…. And as he grew old and achy, he taught me about optimism in the face of adversity. Mostly, he taught me about friendship and selflessness and (the meaning of) unwavering loyalty.”
So if your spirited kid is asking for a dog, think through the responsibilities of dog ownership, ask yourself whether you can make it work for you and the dog, and then consider the needs of your child. Because if your child is stressed or anxious or in need of a very special friend, then a dog might be the wet nosed, warm tongued gift from God she’s looking for.