In a previous blog, I talked about using all available resources around us to connect with a Looked After Child and the obvious resources that spring to mind are training, counselling and other professionals suited to the particular child in care. However, there are two resources which can reach out to a child, often when everything else fails: one is play and play therapy and the other resource is animals.
Families thinking about fostering can assume that having a family pet will be seen as detrimental but this can be far from the truth as pets can offer a child who is hurting or vulnerable a non judgemental ear and a soft body to cuddle up to. As long as your pet has been assessed as safe around children, an animal can be a valuable addition to a fostering family.
In my fostering career, dogs have proved to be the saviour of at least one placement and have helped greatly in others. Our current family dog, Luke, is a soft, slobbery Labrador mix and is very big. He has big soft velvet ears and a huge permanently wagging tail. When Jeremy, a young man with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD), came to us he did a great job of coping with the complex world around him that he often didn’t fully understand but he would occasionally be overwhelmed by his emotions or anger. He would sit on the carpet and slam his hands against the floor in frustration and Luke would spring up to sit by him. Initially Jeremy would push Luke away but the dog wouldn’t budge and eventually he would nudge Jeremy’s arm enough times until the young man put his arms around him. Jeremy would calm down and start stroking Luke’s soft fur and talk to him. Sooner or later, the two would be on the floor curled up together with Jeremy murmuring soft words to him. Jeremy had a good bond with Luke but if he was out he could turn to his love of music to help calm him.
Luke is used to the comings and goings in our home. We could have a child stay with us for an emergency 48 hour period, four weeks or years and he seems to just take it in his stride that a new face has arrived to adore him. He assumes everyone loves him and he loves everyone. However, the bond that he shared with Ellen seemed to be different; deeper and more meaningful. Ellen came to us a traumatised young person in the middle of the night, hurt and resentful, belligerently saying that she wasn’t staying and would run away. Luke loved her instantly but was wary of her outbursts. She hardly acknowledged Luke’s presence but never hurt or shouted at him however she could be angry and slam doors hard enough to rattle the windows. The first time they interacted was a game changer for them both. Ellen was sat on the sofa watching TV and Luke snuck up to the other end and gradually crawled over to her so he was sat next to her. Ellen absentmindedly reached over and stroked his ears. He then leant against her so she adjusted her position, again whilst absorbed by the TV and within 10 minutes Luke was snuggled firmly next to her with his big head on her lap. From that night on, Luke followed her around demanding attention and Ellen began talking to him and encouraging the interaction. Within the week, we had noticed that Ellen was calmer and less stressed about upcoming contact with family or school and if she was upset, she would sit and cuddle Luke. The first time she opened up to me about her experiences, she was sat on the sofa giving Luke long comforting strokes of his glossy black fur.
I have never let Luke sleep on my bed, he’s far too big and sharing it with a hubby that snores is bad enough, so when Ellen asked if she could have Luke in her room, I was reluctant to agree but as she was so fearful of the dark and the world outside the front door, I relented. The bedtime routine of a sneaky extra dog biscuit tucked inside her pocket became set in stone and Luke became a fixture on her bed and by her side. Ellen was with me two years and in times of stress or upsetting family contact she would still turn to Luke first before eventually confiding in me.
It has long been proven that having a pet (not just dogs but cats, horses, rabbits, guinea pigs and other animals) improves cardiovascular health and lowers blood pressure, can help reduce pain, ease the effects of depression, releases feel good endorphins, reduces anxiety as well as providing comfort and lessening isolation and loneliness. Animals can improve literacy and numeracy in children and promote positive behaviour and improved social skills with children on the autistic spectrum. The UK based charity Pets as Therapy have been working with hospices, hospitals and charities since 1983 and have seen interest in their work grow and as a result, many nursing homes and hospitals now have animal therapy programmes as standard.
For Luke, their partnership meant he sat and waited by the door for her return from school and would furiously wag his tail and whine whenever he heard the gate close. For Ellen, Luke was the giver of unconditional love and the keeper of her dark secrets.