Increasingly, school educators across the country and even internationally are starting to realize the benefits of therapy dogs in the school environment. Unfortunately, the majority of elementary, middle and high schools have yet to fully tap into this tremendous tool that can greatly serve its students.
Over the years, numerous research studies have been undertaken to validate the benefits of animal assisted activity and in particular the contribution of therapy dogs. Empirical evidence has shown that therapy dogs can enhance children’s psychological development, improve social skills, and increase self-esteem among other benefits. Dogs can also teach responsibility, compassion, and respect for other living things. Dogs in the classroom can be used to calm fears, relieve anxiety, and teach skills. Here is a summary of potential benefits:
- Physical – interaction with a furry friend reduces blood pressure, provides tactile stimulation, assists with pain management, gives motivation to move, walk and stimulates the senses
- Social – a visit with a dog provides a positive mutual topic for discussion, promotes greater self-esteem and well-being, and focused interaction with others
- Cognitive – companionship with a dog stimulates memory, problem solving and game playing
- Emotional – an adorable four-legged visitor improves self-esteem, acceptance from others, and lifts mood often provoking laughter
- Environmental – a dog in a facility decreases the feeling of a sterile environment, lifts mood and this continues after visits
Research has demonstrated that therapy dogs properly managed in the school setting can not only make a measurable difference in terms of gaining various skills such as reading enhancement, but also in contributing critically to emotional and relational development.
School staff are finding that the presence of a therapy dog can decrease anxiety and enable students to work through issues such as anger management, bullying tendencies and others psycho/social problems thus improving student engagement and achievement.
The introduction of a non-threatening therapy dog can serve as a catalytic vehicle for forming adaptive and satisfactory social interactions. Guided activities and group discussions help teach students how to handle interpersonal conflicts and develop constructive responses.
Questions and concerns are inevitable when it comes to introducing a new and perhaps perceived radical program into a school. The reality is that many of the objections can be adequately met when schools do their homework, prepare teachers and students properly, communicate clearly with parents, and work with qualified and competent therapy dog organizations.
Let’s look more closely at some of the concerns:
- Allergic reactions. Understandably, parents and educators may be concerned about potential allergic reactions to dogs within the school environment. However, qualified dog handlers are required by their organizations to meet cleanliness and grooming requirements minimizing allergic contact. Dogs also are only put in situations where students voluntarily participate thus avoiding risky contact.
- Fear of dogs. There is no doubt that some children have had very traumatic experiences with a pet or have never been exposed to one before, thus having a severe fear of contact with a dog. Because the therapy dog program is implemented by permission or voluntarily, and only in areas where unwanted contact with a dog can be avoided, the fear issue can be minimized. Experience and research has also shown that with proper guidance and handling, children can learn to overcome their fear of animals and with it, grow in respect and appreciation of them.
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