It can be a thorny problem. The children in the experiment — six who will work and play with dogs as part of their therapy for 12 weeks, and six others, the control group, who will play only with stuffed animals — don’t look at first glance any different from others.
Each has the bright eyes and quick smiles of most youngsters between 7 and 9. They seem engaged and eager to take part in classroom exercises.
Watch closely, however, and a few telltale signs might emerge: a bit too much fidgeting, perhaps, or a too-frequent stare into space, or a face scrunched into a grimace that seems out of rhythm with what is going on in the room.
The disorder, known as ADHD for short, is really a matter of degree, said UC Irvine assistant professor Sabrina Schuck, an educational psychologist who is leading the study.
“In my opinion, we all have these symptoms,” Schuck said. “We don’t know where we put the keys, we forget our glasses. Or having worries when we don’t pay the bills.”
It becomes a disorder when it begins to interfere with lives and relationships, she said: “When you don’t pay the bills so much you get late fees. Or, you talk so much you don’t get invited to parties.”
But these children were screened carefully to ensure they were right for the study. They have no history of medication, their diagnoses are clear and agreed upon by experts, and they are receiving no other therapy.
Each attends public school or is schooled at home.
The dogs arrive every Thursday evening at UCI’s Child Development Center, a school where Schuck serves as director that has regular classes and about 60 students, none of whom are part of the study.
Many of the school’s students have some form of ADHD, Schuck said.
And while their high energy, boundary busting movements and, at times, endless streams of talk can earn them rebukes from parents and teachers and isolation from their peers, they tend to be of normal to high intelligence, perfectly capable of classroom tasks such as reading aloud.
Scans using magnetic resonance imaging suggest that many such children have deficiencies in the limbic system of their brains, leading to problems regulating dopamine, a hormone that helps moderate behavior.
The deficiencies are likely a result of genetic predisposition combined with environmental triggers, including triggers that can take place in the womb, Schuck said.
“You hear the kids say, ‘I’m bored,’” she said. “It’s not that they can’t do the work. They just need a little bit more motivation.”
But the high-intensity and sometimes aggressive energy of the youngsters can wear their parents out. That can tip the scales toward negative messages — “Sit up straight!” “Be quiet!” “Stop talking!” — instead of the positive reinforcement that Schuck says works far better.
Soon the children are locked in a downward spiral — everyone either yelling at them or shunning them, turning what should be a normal school experience into a nightmare.
Schuck, who says as a girl she was “always getting sent to the principal’s office,” began to wonder whether the company of dogs might help the children learn what comes naturally to most of us — how to act around other people.
But while the benefit of animal therapy might seem intuitively obvious, Schuck said, there have been few attempts to measure the effect with enough scientific rigor to pass muster for publication in science journals.
“We need to be able to better demonstrate that in the literature,” she said.
So Schuck and her fellow researchers keep detailed notes, introduce and remove the dogs in carefully prescribed ways, and strictly manage settings so they can compare the dog therapy results with those of the control group.
When class is in session, two of the researchers hover around the children as they interact with their teacher, offering mostly positive comments but occasional corrections, and, if needed, timeouts from the “positive reinforcement” session.
“Good eye contact,” they might say, or, “Good job participating.” Or, they might compliment the youngsters on keeping their hands folded and listening while someone else speaks.
They earn points for the good behavior, calm but firm comments on the bad.
“Part of the reason for having dogs in the room is motivation,” Schuck said. “Positive praise and redirection is how we shape adaptive behaviors. After 60 hours of intervention we expect to approach an optimal response — and we hope to increase that response with the dogs.”
All the dogs are certified “therapy dogs” and are pre-screened, she said. And all are brought to the sessions by their trainers, who remain on hand to make sure things don’t get out of control.
“The dogs have to have a certain demeanor,” Schuck said.
The children get to play with the dogs outside as the session starts. The dogs stand by to reward the children during classes with a chance for play.
And later, in a different room, the children read aloud to the dogs.
“Sometimes for kids with ADHD and kids in general it’s hard keep them motivated,” she said. “The theory is, if kids are reading to the dog it makes it a little more engaging than if just had to read in front of their peers.”
Parents, meanwhile, receive instruction of their own in yet another room.
That is aimed at helping them cope with their children’s behavior, and teaching them to apply the same sorts of techniques as the teachers do in class.
They can also watch how their children behave in the classroom through two-way mirrors.
By the time the four-year study is finished, 108 children will have taken part, providing the scientists with a large enough sample size to tease out the true effects from otherwise noisy data.
Because the study is just beginning, the impressions of parents remain anecdotal.
Still, parents of two of the children said they’ve noticed changes in behavior they believe are directly attributable to the dogs.
Peter, the father of the cherub, said the girl is getting better at dealing calmly with her brother, as well as other people.
“The way she talks and addresses people,” Peter said. “She’ll catch herself — ‘Let me try this again.’ Personally, I think it’s because of the dogs.”
Amy said her daughter, also taking part in the study, used to be afraid of dogs.
Then came a breakthrough.
“She said one day, ‘I have found if I am calm around the dog, the dog is calm around me.’”
Both Peter and Amy asked that only their first names be used. All the parents requested that neither their children’s first nor last names be used in this story.
Parents interested in taking part can call study coordinator Tina Wippler at 949-824-8733.