Mental Health Tools: Dogs Are a Spirited Kid’s Best Friend

Therapy dogs help kids calm down
Photo by La Miko on

Occasionally, I’ll share some of the therapeutic tools that my kids and I use to help control their mental health symptoms. Today’s tool is snuggling our dogs.

One of the symptoms of my son’s mental illness is that he his anxiety often turns to rage. He feels anxious, he convinces himself that a problem is unsolvable, he spirals out of control, and rages.

His therapist has taught him a few tools to calm himself down when he’s feeling anxious, like taking deep breaths and counting to ten, but none of them worked. The reason they didn’t work was because my kid didn’t believe they would work. Why didn’t he believe? I can only guess, but I think it was because his anxiety was so strong that it convinced him that nothing would work.

That all changed when a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) counselor did something amazing: He asked my son what HE thought would work.

My kid had had another one of his rage episodes, and this was the third day in a row that he’d done it. I called CIT in desperation. (If you’ve never heard of CIT, please check them out on my resources page. They are a godsend.)

The CIT counselors, my son, and I discussed what had happened, and the tools he could’ve used to calm himself down. I told the counselor that my son’s therapist had taught him to take deep breaths when he was anxious, but that he never even tries to take deep breaths, even when I remind him.

“Why don’t you try the deep breaths?” said the counselor.

“I don’t know,” said my son. “I guess when I’m feeling like that, my brain convinces me that I can’t do anything my mom says.”

“OK,” said the counselor. “Let’s try to find something that YOU say will work.”

My son screwed up his face. He wasn’t used to coming up with his own tools. “Okaaaaaayyyyy.”

“So,” said the counselor, “what makes you feel calm?”

A pause. Tentative eyebrows. “Snuggling my dogs?”

“OK. What does it feel like when you snuggle the dogs?”

“I don’t know. I just feel better. Like I stop thinking about whatever was bothering me and just relax because they never stop loving me no matter what.”

“I think we’ve found your best tool,” said the counselor.

And he was right. Now, whenever my son starts getting agitated, I send him to the dogs. He doesn’t need a time out or a punishment. Not yet anyway. He needs to settle down FIRST so that he can learn LATER. So he snuggles the dogs. And they are happy to oblige.

What do you all think of animal therapy? Do you have any other innovative tools you’d like to share? I’d love to hear about them! Please comment!

Dog snuggling on couch
Oliver is ready to snuggle!

Published by Nicole Roder

Writer Nicole Roder lives in Bowie, Maryland with her husband, Matt, their children, Emma, Sophia, Raymond, and Gianni. And Lucy–their fiercely terrifying, 20-pound Boston Terrier who protects their home from some ubiquitous danger only she can see. When she’s not busy composing her next great work of fiction, she’s wiping bottoms, dancing in her kitchen, singing in her minivan, building lego castles, wrapping feather boas around her neck, and driving all over God’s creation. AKA–mothering her children.

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