ADHD - Hairy therapists

Andrea Bannert - Transmission from German Evgeny Sheronov

There are therapists that need no words. With their saucer eyes and long fur, they easily charm their little patients and gain their trust in no time. At dog therapy, children with ADHD learn to concentrate, trust and gain self-esteem.

It’s Friday and that means it’s Martin’s lucky day. And it is also Shirka’s lucky day. Shirka is a mongrel that has already reached a certain and who has got silky fur just like Lassie. “Go!” shouts eleven-year-old Martin* “Let’s go!”, as he curves around the red poles like a skier. His hairy friend sticks close to his leg. And once she loses interest in running and jumping around, Martin bribes her with a piece of sausage. “Hopp!” commands Martin, who resembles the chubby “Michel from Lönneberga” while waving the sausage in front of her snout. Black and white fur and a blonde shock of hair fly over sunshine yellow obstacles. Their training ground is located on the outskirts of Munich, far away from the busy city center and its masses of tourists. A barred meadow, the size of a soccer field, surrounded by trees and fields stands as a lush green contrast to the blue and white Bavarian sky. Only the faint hum of tractors in the distance disturbs the silence now and then. Dog therapy demands concentration, coordination, speed, flexibility, and trust. These are all things, that are difficult for children with ADHD like Martin.

Unchecked sensory overload

Happy days such as this one are rather scarce for Martin. He has problems keeping up in school, he fidgets around a lot. At home, it is not much better, as his parents have terrible arguments day in and day out. “It all gets too much for me very quickly. Then I start to scream or wriggle around.” Martin says. His neural system is overloaded with all the external stimuli – his brain can’t decide which information is relevant and which is not. Every perception hits him directly without any filter in between. That’s what experts call Attention-Deficit-Hyperactivity-Disorder (ADHD). As Martin has difficulties to concentrate in class, he makes many mistakes in exams and as a result, gets bad marks and is constantly scolded. Praise, on the other hand, is a rare good in Martin’s life.

But today he even receives standing ovations. Five boys around his age, who are sitting next to their animal therapists on the lush green meadow applaud him vigorously for his parkour-skills. “Well done Martin”. Petra Wörle agrees and the blonde boy smiles happily.

Winning their trust in no time

Petra, who runs the dog therapy, is in her forties and her good mood is contagious. Shirka is her own dog and serves as her co-therapist. “Shirka has gained Martin’s trust in no time. I myself would have needed weeks for that.”, says Petra.

As Shirka and her barking colleagues actively seek contact with the children, they are better suited for the therapy of children with ADHD than cats, horses, turtles, llamas or other animals, because these children often seclude themselves from others. Shirka urges Martin to stop fidgeting without using any words. Martin says: “Than she squeaks like a baby.” In contrast to the majority of the 750.000 ADHD patients in Germany, Martin takes no medication to treat his condition. And Shirka has no side-effects whatsoever.

On the stage together

Shirka’s persuasiveness is huge. She could even convince Martin to perform in front of an audience. “I would have never dared to do that before,” says Martin. On their big day, Martin and Shirka swap their green meadow for a huge arena that fits some 12.000 spectators. Instead of its collar, the dog now wears a flashy blue blinking collar. And Martin, wearing all black, has spruced himself up, too. To the sound of “She’s got nothing on” Martin and Shirka and 14 other teams march into the arena, that normally serves as a stage for Beyoncé and Robbie Williams. Only Martin’s tense facial expression shows his nervousness.

“Sit!” shouts Martin emphatically and Shirka follows suit at once and falls to the ground while Martin marches on. A quick glance back confirms his hopes that Shirkas is still lying on the ground – next to 14 other dogs. Martin easily performs a 180 degree turn and shouts, almost in unison with the other children”Here!”. Then Shirka races towards him.


* Name was changed by the editors — © Copyright 2013 – All rights reserved –