Pet Space Design + Animal Therapy
EP/ Exceptional Parent Magazine Article
Copyright 2018 Charles M. Schwab
Have you ever wondered if a service dog or assistance animal could benefit your child and family? Has your youngster asked you if he or she could have a pet? A better question may be, when was the last time they did? Chances are, you have answered affirmatively to one of those questions. Maybe your family has already discovered the many pleasures that furry friends can bring to any household.
In this blog post, we explore how to size and design a dog den (doghouse) or pet space, as well as spaces that will encourage youth participation in the routine and pet activities required by the animal on a daily basis.
Take your time, do animal health homework first.
Before we go any further, perhaps it makes sense to consider how realistic it is for your child with a disability and your family to manage an animal’s life and care, let alone an energetic & active dog that may want to manage you! Most people are well aware that there is a lot of work and time involved when caring for a pet.
Children with disabilities will have different ways to cope with and perform the tasks of caring for a pet or assistance animal. Parents of a youngster with different needs will likely want to consider additional safety measures before deciding if a pet or dog is a good fit for them and the family. For example, a rambunctious dog, not trained as an assistance animal, may knock over a fragile child using a mobility aid or another assistive device. A barking dog or screeching bird may scare or cause stress for children with sensory disorders. Therefore, it is best to choose a pet that is comforting and friendly with the neighborhood kids too.
Always discuss the pros and cons of having assistance animals and pets of any kind with your youth’s Pediatrician, Occupational or Physical Therapist, and perhaps an animal shelter representative that has experience with connecting animal companions with people who have different needs and those seeking emotional support animals.
First, think big picture space planning and design, starting with your neighborhood. Consider where you live now and any plans you may have for your families’ home location in the future. Will you be moving often? Do you live in a small apartment or house now?
In the USA, Housing and Urban Development (HUD) guidelines for reasonable accommodation and section 504 of the Fair Housing Act explain your rights to live with assistance animals in an apartment complex with four units or more (see the reference links below). Be aware of your rights and discuss this with the landlord if you are an apartment renter before you spend a lot of effort designing the best space for Fido.
If you are adopting a pet from an animal shelter, ask if you can bring the animal home for a few days before you keep the pet permanently. In the case of a trained assistance animal, there will most likely be paperwork to complete and some waiting before you actually receive the animal. Be sure you are making the right decision for your family before you design the animal shelter or house space.
Child + Parent = Pet space designers
Ok, now that you have done your homework and are ready and up to the task of designing the animal haven, dog den or birdhouse, now what? It is time for fun and interactive animal space design. Have you ever thought your youngster could play an active role in designing your pooches’ room, den or doghouse space? By inviting your youngster to participate in the design of the animal’s physical environment, you can instill responsible pet care behavior. It may even motivate them to help when it is time for daily pet care chores.
Since kids and pets both respond well and are comforted with a consistent routine, teaching a child how to prepare for his own pet’s daily care, with a regular lifestyle, in harmony with their own, can be a valuable and pleasurable experience. Pet care, and the responsibilities that come with it, can be an avenue toward independence and increased self-esteem for everyone. There is a myriad of other health and social benefits that can come through pet companionship including their ability to give unconditional love. Affection and loyalty, especially in the case of a dog.
Designing the pets’ environment will help the young person think through how to feed, clean and exercise the animal within its habitat. When your youngster assists in designing the animal’s habitat, it can enrich their life by nurturing healthy emotions toward all living critters. These feelings may stay with your youngster, creating lifetime positive memories of their early years. Doesn’t everyone want that for their child? As mentioned previously, this experience can lead to a stronger bond with the animal and increased independence for the youngster.
Our goal is to also make pet care accessible for the youngster by encouraging empowerment and not increasing frustration. If your dog is a service animal, it is important to first consult the service dog trainer before designing the most appropriate dog den space. There may be strict boarding requirements and the concept of interaction with the shelter design may not be advisable for a particular dog.
All living things need space to live and move. When dogs feel stressed, they like to have a cover over their bodies for a feeling of protection. Dogs are den animals, meaning they like a defined space that can become their own territory. The dog den helps relieve Fido’s stress.
Measure the dog first before you size the shelter
Ok, let us get your youngster involved whenever possible. That is the main idea here. Animal Welfare Act Regulations require that a primary enclosure for an adult dog without nursing puppies must have enough space to stand, sit and move about freely. It must be able to lie comfortably and walk in a normal manner.
Space must also be high enough, therefore, the primary shelter enclosure must be 6 inches higher than the dog’s head. Following is an example of how to calculate the dog’s minimum space needs for either an outdoor doghouse or an indoor shelter, inside dog cage, under the steps den, etc.
- Measure the dog’s height from the floor to the top of the dog’s head in inches then add 6 inches to that. This number is the ceiling height of the pooches’ pet pad. Write the height down.
- Now measure the dog’s length. With the dog in a normal standing position, or when lying down flat on his side, measure the dog along a straight line from the tip of his nose to the base of the tail, not the end of the tail. Then also add 6 inches to this number.
- Let us presume your dog is 30 inches from the tip of his nose to the base of his tail, add 6 inches to that for a total of 36 inches.
- This is simple. The square foot minimum is then 36 inches x 36 inches = 1296 square inches.
- Since there are 144 inches in a square foot, we divide 1296 by 144 = 9 square feet. 36 inches = 3 feet. See, this is easy. In this case, 3 feet x 3 feet = 9 sq. feet.
See the table as a guide to help you determine your dog’s space needs based on his body length.
Therefore, based on a 30-inch-long dog, Fido needs a 3-foot square space so he can turn around comfortably. If the doghouse was 2 feet wide by 4 feet 6 inches long, for example, it would still amount to 9 square feet total, but since it is not square, the dog could not turn around in order to get comfortable.
We all know how animals can be particular about finding the “just right” position to lay down and relax. A dog simply needs enough space to turn around within his doghouse, turning left or right as he gets cozy. Your dog’s space should have no sharp edges to cut his paws and sensitive snout, the floor should be accessible so it can be cleaned.
Explain to your youngster, if he or she uses a wheelchair, that dogs can turn around in circles, more or less in much the same way that a mechanical wheelchair revolves around its center. I say this so you can make an analogy with your child’s mobility device by showing how the dog needs space to turn around, just like he does in his own room when he turns around in the wheelchair.
There are also space requirements for dogs nursing puppies. Excuse me if this is too much information, however, the point is that all animals are required to have safe and sufficient space to move about within a place or space, just like all people do. Congratulations, hopefully, your youngster has now had their first DIY home and pet space design lesson!
Design pet spaces with pet care in mind
Cleaning: This can be tricky. I have designed open grates 30 x 30 inches (or larger) in garages or outside the house door near a hose bib. This area can then serve as a combined wheelchair wheel-wash and dog-wash station. I recommend cellulose free “glass-matt” wallboard that extends 3 feet up on the garage walls, so the walls do not get wet or moldy. Some people have “pet spas” with ramps for the dog to walk up into a shallow tub. Pet spas are becoming popular in multi-family housing complexes.
When the dog wash is inside, of course, a flexible hand hose is a fine faucet fixture. The dog room or space may be in the mudroom where pooches’ paws can be cleaned of yard muck before entering into the main house. A separate space adjacent to a mudroom can be decorated and made special by your son or daughter. The biggest trick is to make it enjoyable for your young designer as well as accessible and safe for the entire family.
Eating: It may be difficult for your youngster to reach into a bag with a scoop or reach down to the floor to fill Fido’s bowl. This is an opportunity for a fixer-upper person to design a dog feeding station with the youngster. Have you ever seen at the store where they put grains and nuts in a bin with a funnel that empties when it is pushed? Maybe create a dog food chute drop that then slides the dog food down a slide to a dog bowl. Think hot wheels ramp-like design.
Exercise: Automatic pet door openers are very popular for this very reason: that is, to let the pooch out to do his business when he wants. Think about security and how that will work. There is a link to an article I wrote about automatic door openers for people and pets below. A Harvard article titled “Wag more, a tale for healthy living” states the following advice. I have adapted the list for wheelchair users who have service or assistance dogs.
- Chart your strolling (both walking and rolling) path ahead of time. Make sure it is accessible and stable for the wheelchair and there are clear sight lines so you will know exactly where you are headed.
- Set a goal. Dogs need to exercise at least once a day. The article says a good rule of thumb is to walk a dog two blocks a day for every 10 pounds of the dog’s body weight.
- Design an exercise regimen for the dog. Make sure the youngster can participate, if not, be there for support
- Teach your dog to heal on a leash. There are all kinds of wheelchair dog walking devices. Lastly, have cool water prepared when you return or bring it with you.
Decorate the dog pad! Why not try it and see how much your child is interested in design and art? It becomes art when your child takes part in decorating the doghouse or painting it and making it an extension of him or her. Maybe even embellish the doghouse with a few kid stickers that can be removed over time, making the house look new again.
Care guidelines for families caring for animals
Professional advice from child psychiatrists shares children’s abilities to care for animals. Parents may know best when their child or youth is ready for an animal companion. Remember to consult with your child’s health professionals first. The following pet care list is adapted from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP):
- Children under the age of 10 are typically unable to care for a large animal on their own.
- Very young children (under the age of 4) should be monitored at all times when in the presence of pets. Children at these early ages do not have the maturity to control their aggressive and angry impulses.
- Parents should always oversee care activities to make sure the pet is properly cared for, even when they believe the youngster is old enough to care for the pet successfully.
- Parents need to be prepared to care for the pet and take full responsibility if their youngster slacks off or becomes ill and no longer performs daily pet care activities.
- Remind the youngster on a regular basis and in a gentle manner that animals are like people: they need food, water, exercise and they need to go potty too, just like people do. Someone needs to take or let them out.
- Be prepared to find a new home for the pet if your youngster continues to neglect the pet. Make this clear prior to bringing the pet into your home.
- AACAP reminds us that parents are role models for their youngsters and they will adopt responsible pet behavior by watching their parent’s actions.
Remember, there will be costs for pet food or maybe cat litter too, as well as finding time to walk the dog, groom it, and clean up after it does its business. There are pet health care needs and a lot more to consider that comes with being responsible for any living pet.
In some cases, the best approach may be to start with a bug or a small animal such as a gerbil, turtle, lizard or a small bird if you like. Maybe experiment by starting with a small pet and see how your child or youth is able to assist with the pet chores. All pets can have emotional and therapeutic benefits for people. The last thing you want to do is create more stress on the family or the neighbors!
Give your youngster all the benefits and happy memories that the dog can offer. Pets are considered part of the family, so why not treat them as such from the start by getting your youngster involved in designing their spaces? The benefits may be even more profound than you could ever imagine.
(This above post originated from an article written for EP/Exceptional Parent Magazine, July 2018. The magazine article copy was reduced for this blog post by me and then portions re-written and then professionally edited. The front 1000 words of the magazine article were moved to the assistance and service dog & ADA-HUD post that follows here)