Animal Assisted Therapy in Schools
Is having animals in the classroom a good thing? Kids like it. But, does it help?
Many studies report significant benefits of animal-assisted therapy in the school setting. Although more definitive research is needed, a growing body of promising findings is emerging. The use of animals as part of educational interventions is greatly increasing, using dogs, horses, rabbits, and a number of others, including farm animals.1
"Most studies reported significant benefits of animal-assisted interventions in the school setting."
Victoria L. Brelsford, Et al.
Studies have linked positive behavioral improvements in teenagers with acute mental disorders, including mood disorders, schizophrenia, anxiety, and eating disorders. Significant gains were attributed to the use of dogs, in particular, acting as a social buffer to the negative impact of psychological stress. The even better news is that the dogs were shown to benefit too.1
In Austria, teachers have been allowed to bring their pet dogs to school. And early results show improvements in student attention, motivation, mood and wellbeing, socio-emotional development, empathy, and cognitive development.1
New studies are starting to show positive effects of animals in classrooms on Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), notably one study that focused on children reading to dogs.1 There is a pervasive calming effect.
Reading comprehension and fluency were found to increase to a significant degree with canine accompaniment. It was thought that the presence of a dog helps physiologically by reducing blood pressure while reading. Writing performance was even shown to get a bit of a boost as well when focused on dogs.1
Research regarding improvements in emotional stability and learning when dogs are included in the classroom showed that a dog's presence contributed to an overall increase in student emotional stability, behavioral control, attitudes about school, and sense of responsibility when it came to lesson's assigned.1
When it comes to communication, results indicated a reduction in children making negative statements and an increase in positive ones. Further, the positive communication appeared to transfer to other daily activities, especially those involving interaction with others. Other effects included decreased feelings of helplessness and improvement in self-confidence. 1
An overall improvement in attitude toward school and schooling was demonstrated in other studies. There appeared to be such a benefit for everyone in the classroom as well.1
Other research showed improvement in the willingness and interest in attending school. And students when at school were even more willing than usual to engage with others in the day's activities.1
Results of still another study showed that the presence of a dog had a significant effect on completion speed of tasks assigned. Part of this was improved motor-skill functioning, which acted as a motivator for participation and improved performance. 1
Almost counter-intuitively, researchers found that when in the presence of an animal, students actually pay greater attention to the teacher.1
It is important to note that while many studies concluded a significant beneficial effect on students in school because of interactions there with animals, not all studies arrived at the same conclusion. Most simply reported no significant effect, while none showed an adverse impact.1
What Alliance Says
The Alliance of Therapy Dogs, one of the largest dog organization in the United States, says the benefits of therapy dogs in the classroom is undeniable.2
"Therapy dogs have been called 'miracle workers' because of their calming effect on students and teachers."
Alliance of Therapy Dogs
The benefits of therapy dogs in classrooms are aplenty: physical, social, cognitive, emotional, and mental. Interactions with dogs have been shown to reduce blood pressure in children at school, to build individual self-esteem, to improve memory functioning, to reduce anxiety, to improve school moods, and to lay the groundwork for more positive social interaction.
How about autism? The calming and stress-reducing effects of animals with children in a classroom helps children with autism to feel more comfortable, more at ease. There is no pressure put on by animals in a classroom, other than to constantly be ready to interact when the child is ready to. Animals are by nature gentle and kind, and just what students on the spectrum need most.
Therapy dogs were used in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, where 26 adults and students were shot and killed in Newtown, Connecticut. Therapy dogs were among the first responders at the elementary school. Just petting the dogs had an amazing soothing effect on everyone.
1 "Animal-Assisted Interventions in the Classroom," Victoria Brelsford, Et al., 2017.
2 "The Benefits of Therapy Dogs in Classrooms and on College Campuses," Alliance of Therapy Dogs, 2017.