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Welcoming a Pet Into the Family
Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused



By Sarah Helm, M.A., BCBA, LABA

Introducing a pet into your home is a very important decision under any circumstance, but especially if you have a child with special needs. An animal can be a wonderful addition to the family, but all pets require some level of responsibility. Don’t underestimate the work it will take to care for this new family member. You should only consider adopting a pet if your family has sufficient time and resources to dedicate to its care and if everyone in the family is ready to accept both the benefits and added stressors a pet can create.

When you have a child with disabilities, extra care is required during the pet adoption process. First, assess whether the pet you are considering is right for your family. Keep in mind that some people with disabilities may be particularly sensitive to certain types of animals (e.g. dogs may move too quickly or unpredictably). Alternatively, a certain kind of animal may not be motivating or interesting to your child. Not only should you decide if this animal (dog, cat, fish, lizard) is the right type for your home, but also if it is the right fit for your family.

To get an idea of what kind of animal your child may like the most, it may be beneficial to introduce him or her to one or more animals in safe, controlled situations. For example, you might visit a friend who has a reliably calm dog or a laid-back cat. Picking out a pet is not always easy. Animals come with a wide range of energy levels and personalities. And, if your child only likes a certain type of animal, you will need to determine whether that animal is right for the rest of the family.

Once you have selected a pet and you are certain that your family will be able to care for it appropriately, the next step is to plan for the pet’s arrival. Depending upon your child’s abilities, you can engage him or her in both the process of preparing for the pet’s arrival and caring for it afterwards. Be very clear about your expectations surrounding the pet, such as who will be responsible for feeding, cleaning, and possibly walking it. Discuss when the pet will arrive and make a safe space for it in your home. If your child is very young, it is often helpful to have a place where the pet can rest and take a break (from the child) as well.

Be prepared to accept the possibility that the pet you chose may not be exactly what you thought it would be. For example, you may find that you have to hire a trainer or arrange for doggie daycare for the more-energetic-than-you-thought dog.

During those first few weeks after your new pet arrives, provide your child with a lot of positive attention and, if necessary, reward him or her for behaving appropriately around the pet (e.g. being gentle, talking in a quiet voice, etc.). Ensure that you provide motivation for your child to continue with the new routine by adding some additional incentives appropriate to his or her age and abilities.

Welcoming a pet into your home can be one of life's many joys. If the circumstances are right, this new addition will greatly enhance your family life. Once your pet and your family have settled in, enjoy!

[This column focuses specifically on pets and not service animals. Service animals assist people with a variety of disabilities. They are trained to do a specific job. If you are interested in obtaining a service animal, you should contact an organization that trains these animals and provides guidance on introducing them into a family setting.]

Sarah Helm, M.A., BCBA, LABA, is the Clinical Director at the May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in West Springfield. She can be contacted at shelm@mayinstitute.org.

May Institute is an award-winning nonprofit organization with more than 60 years of experience in serving children and adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. May Institute operates four schools for children and adolescents with ASD and other developmental disabilities, including one in West Springfield, Mass. For more information, call 800-778-7601.