Have you ever heard about someone getting an emotional support dog? Getting a dog for your child who has an eating disorder can be a great way to help them heal. Dogs provide unconditional love and affection. This can help your child during the healing process.
Eating disorder treatment includes professional care. Your child’s treatment team will support the development of a healthy self-image. Your child will learn self-care techniques and build self-worth. But even the best care team will tell parents that true healing takes place at home. This puts parents and siblings on the front line of care.
Getting a dog can help eating disorder recovery
This pressure can be a bit intimidating. It’s hard to provide the constant affection, reinforcement, and attention that will support eating disorder recovery. Luckily, there are four-legged-friends who would be happy to help you with in-home care for your child’s eating disorder.
Pets have been shown to support trauma recovery, reduce anxiety and depression symptoms, and provide life purpose. Petting a dog can lower blood pressure and heart rate and increase levels of endorphins and oxytocin.
We’re focusing on dogs, but of course, there are many options when it comes to pets. Dogs just happen to be easily available, trainable, and loyal. They can be a very good addition to your child’s eating disorder therapy. But, of course, getting a dog is not a simple decision.
Here are some ideas about how to go about getting a dog specifically to support your child’s healing process.
Before getting a dog during eating disorder recovery
Before you get a dog, you want to establish your goals. We’re going to assume the primary goal is to provide a loving companion for your child who has an eating disorder.
A dog will provide comfort and companionship. It can also help your child build a sense of self-worth and self-efficacy. To do this, your child should be responsible for your dog’s care. It’s important to ensure that your child is interested in getting a dog and is willing and committed to caring for it.
Deciding to get a dog is a family decision that will impact everyone. If someone in the family is allergic to or intolerant of dogs, then come up with another idea. Make it clear that if the family agrees to get a dog, there is no going back. Having a dog is a commitment for that dog’s life.
At a minimum, your child should commit to the following tasks:
- Maintaining a clean water bowl
- Feeding the dog 1-2 times per day
- Walking the dog at least twice per day
Feeding may be as simple as putting a cup of kibble in a bowl. But some dogs have digestive problems, which may require a special diet. In such cases, your child may need to prepare simple foods for the dog, such as boiled chicken and rice. You won’t know these details until you live with the dog, so it’s best to be prepared for all possibilities.
Additional dog care requirements
Your child will also need to clean up after the dog. this means daily poop-duty. There’s also the likelihood of random vomiting, diarrhea, and peeing-in-the-house accidents.
Grooming varies based on the type of dog you get. If the dog is going to be inside your home, you should require your child to bathe the dog every few weeks and brush it daily. These duties may increase if the dog is prone to shedding.
Some dogs develop barking or other bad habits that your child will need to address through research and training. Almost every negative habit can be addressed. But it will require your child to learn some new skills. This can actually be a great thing for a child who is in recovery for an eating disorder.
Create a care plan for the dog before you bring it home. Set this up as a contract between you and your child. Print out the care plan and have your child sign and date it to affirm the care they will provide the dog.
Picking a dog
You may be interested in a particular breed of dog. You may decide to approach an agency that specializes in providing service dogs for people who have special needs. A great alternative, however, is to adopt a rescue dog. Many children/teens respond very positively to the idea of rescuing a dog that has been abandoned.
While almost everyone thinks they want a puppy, the reality is that puppies require a great deal of care. This will not work well in a busy family with multiple commitments. Instead of a puppy, consider adopting a fully-grown 2-5 year old (or even older) dog.
Benefits of getting an older dog for eating disorder recovery:
- You avoid the puppy years, which, though adorable, are also very disruptive. Just like having a baby, having a puppy includes frequent bathroom accidents and hyperactivity. Puppies need training for basic skills like house training, walking on a leash, behaving well around other dogs and children, etc.
- You can observe the dog’s personality and behavior as it will be for most of its life. Puppies are bundles of energy. It’s only after they hit about two years old that they achieve the steady personality you can expect.
- You can observe whether your child has a connection with a particular dog’s personality. Dogs are just like people – they all have a unique personality. You want to find a dog that will fit into your child’s (and your) life.
- Chances are good that your child will leave home soon. Adopting an older dog means that your child gets the benefit of having an animal. But you aren’t left taking care of it for a decade after your child leaves home.
Once you have selected a dog, help your child bond with the dog by insisting upon the care plan. Try to avoid stepping in to take care of the dog.
Caring for the dog, even when it is inconvenient, is part of your child’s therapy plan. Caring for an animal provides a sense of ownership and agency. Your child will benefit from sticking to the care plan.
Support your child in building their bond with the dog. Support their interest in training ideas, grooming lessons, and even getting the dog certified to be a therapy dog. Doing this will mean the dog can visit sick people in the hospital or elder-care facilities.
Of course, if all your child wants to do it lie around petting the dog or taking selfies with the dog, that’s OK, too!
For information about dogs available for adoption, what to think about before adopting, and more, visit Petfinder.com
Ginny Jones is the editor of More-Love.org. She writes about parenting, body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders.