‘Would a dog help my daughter’s selective mutism?’

My little girl is seven with selective mutism. She is doing great in school and is starting to talk more often, but outside school she is not doing too good. She goes to lots of different activities, such as GAA, swimming, playing the tin whistle, and girl guides. However, she communicates very little when at these activities, though she still goes. Somebody mentioned to me that a having a dog might help improve her confidence. She is keen to get one. Do you think having a pet would really help? She certainly would like one.

Generally, improvements in selective mutism are gradual. It is great that your daughter is doing well in school and beginning to speak more often there. Now you want to slowly expand this progress to other areas in her life. The key is to be patient and to go at her pace.One thing that struck me in reading your question is that it is important to make sure she is not doing too many

One thing that struck me in reading your question is that it is important to make sure she is not doing too many extracurricular activities. Focus only on ones she enjoys and wants to do. If she is tired and stressed participating in some of the activities, this might be counterproductive.

Indeed, what she might simply need is more free play time at home when she can just hang out and perhaps have friends over. In the relaxed environment of home, she might make more progress in speaking with friends and adults who visit.

You ask an interesting question about whether getting her a pet or a dog might help her confidence. Indeed, there is good evidence that pets can help children in many different ways, such as giving them a companion to love and be loved by, special responsibilities in taking care of the pet and even encouraging them to take exercise walking the dog.

In one study, parents and children were asked to rate sources of happiness in their lives. While they largely agreed on their top five sources (getting on with parents, enjoying school, having friends, and so on), there was one striking area of disagreement – children included having a pet in their top five ingredients of happiness whereas parents did not.

In your daughter’s situation, while a dog might increase her wellbeing and happiness, it may not immediately improve her selective mutism – unless you set it up that having a dog brings her into social situations, such as joining a dog-walking club or going to dog-training lessons or simply having social contact with other dog owners.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that as getting a pet is such a big family decision that entails a lot of responsibility for everyone, you would have to think about it very carefully.
John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, October 2016. John writes in the Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.
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