Getting a dog for your child who is in recovery from an eating disorder

When your child is in recovery for an eating disorder, he or she needs professional care that supports the development of a healthy self-image, teaches self-care techniques, and builds self-efficacy. Parents engage a treatment team to do the therapy, but the majority of healing takes place at home, with parents and siblings in the front line of care.

This pressure can be a big intimidating, and it’s hard to provide the constant affection, reinforcement and attention that will support eating disorder treatment. 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, so 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 you get a dog

Before you get a dog, you want to establish your goals. For the purpose of this article, we’re going to assume the primary goal is to provide a loving companion for your child who has an eating disorder.

In addition to providing comfort and companionship, this dog will also help your child build a sense of self-worth and self-efficacy by making him or her responsible for another being. Thus, 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.

Care guidelines

At a minimum, your child should commit to maintaining a clean water bowl, feeding the dog 1-2 times per day and 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.

Your child will also need to clean up after the dog, which will include daily poop-duty, plus the possibility of random vomiting, diarrhea, and peeing-in-the-house accidents. Grooming varies based on the type of dog you get, but 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, especially if the dog is prone to shedding.

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, or 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. The benefits of this include:

  1. You avoid the puppy years, which, though adorable, are also very disruptive. Just like having a baby, having a puppy includes frequent bathroom accidents, hyperactivity, and a need to train basic skills like house training, walking on a leash, behaving well around other dogs and children, etc.
  2. You can observe the dog’s personality and behavior as it will be for most of its life. Puppies are bundles of energy, and it’s only after they hit about two years old that they achieve the steady personality you can expect.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Untitled design-3Bonding

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 power, and your child will benefit from sticking to the care plan.

Support your child in building his or her bond with the dog by supporting his or her interest in training ideas, grooming lessons, and even getting the dog certified to be a therapy dog that can visit sick people in the hospital. 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!


imagesFor information about dogs available for adoption, what to think about before adopting, and more, visit Petfinder.com

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