Dogs provide invaluable support and friendship to humans of all ages, and their ability to be relaxed, friendly, and non-judgmental can make their presence a boon in many educational environments. Here are a few examples of how why therapy dogs and buddy dogs can be beneficial in school settings:
Dogs are Patient and Kind towards Young Students and New Readers
While dogs can of course, in some settings (such as when they are ready for a snack or walk) be impatient, trained therapy dogs can offer an easy-going and patient temperament for children who need some unconditional company, unhurried listening, and support. An early reader who can sense the frustration and impatience of an adult or older child who is listening to them sometimes finds reading to a dog more relaxing. Enter trained therapy and buddy dogs who have learned how to chill-out with kids who need a book-buddy or some low-key, kind company. Dogs who participate in reading programs are trained by groups such as Dogs on Call of Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), whose participating therapy dogs are “certified and continually meet set standards for temperament, obedience, and hygiene. Together, volunteers and their therapy dogs work to satisfy safety requirements so that they can provide this important service.” Children can meet with trained dogs for reading sessions to gain vital practice reading when other human listeners aren’t available or eager and also as a reward for their continued reading efforts.
Readers of the Pack is a California group whose “4Paws dogs” are reading buddies for local kids at both libraries and schools. In the University of California-Davis study called, “Canine Buddies Help Youth Develop Reading Skills,” third-grade students read to the “All Ears Reading program” dogs once a week for 10 weeks. They found that the students who participated improved their reading fluency by 12 percent and that “by the final project interview, the children described reading aloud as ‘fun’ and ‘cool,’ and said that they felt ‘relaxed and more confident’ when reading to a dog.” Dogs also offer simple friendship and physical comfort, which some children desperately need. Head of School Jeff Sindler, who has brought dogs to school for over two decades, shares this reflection in a Washington Post article on dogs in classrooms: “the great thing about a dog is they just express affection, and that may be in short supply with a lot of these kids.” Read on for examples of how older students can benefit from a bit of canine TLC as well.
Dogs are Stress-Relieving for College Kids
When discussing the use of dogs or other animals as therapy and companion animals, it’s important to point out two types of animal programs or treatment options: Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT), which is including animals in formal, medical treatment plans, and Animal-Assisted Activities (AAA), which is using animals in visitation and/or recreational programs for various reasons. One type of AAA/ visitation program that is gaining popularity happens not in K-12 settings but on college campuses. College students can check out dogs to spend time with when they are feelings homesick, lonely, or just stressed. Kent State University’s “Dogs on Campus” is one example of this type of collegiate pet therapy program. It was the first university program of its kind and was founded by Professor Dr. Kathy Adamle. The Dogs on Campus site explains that she discovered in her research “that students consider their pets as part of their families, and so began this program “to uplift the spirits of homesick college students who miss their pets.” At VCU, “Paws for Stress” programs are held by the Center for Human & Animal Interaction to help students take a break with therapy dogs during exam weeks. Usually about 600 students come out for the event. At George Mason’s law school, they have a similar academic break in which students play with puppies from A Forever-Home Rescue Foundation.
If you are already a dog lover, you probably don’t need much hard evidence to understand how they can be a “student’s best friend” and be generally beneficial and stress-relieving companions. If you aren’t a dog lover or you are just interested in a few related facts, check out a study called, “The Health Benefits of Companion Animals.” It found that many physiological measures of stress and observable markers of anxiety, including blood pressure and heart rate, were reduced when a subject interacted with a dog. There are, naturally, concerns relating to therapy dogs in the areas of safety, cultural norms, and emotional comfort (some children are unaccustomed to or afraid of dogs). In the report, “Canine Visitors: The Influence of Therapy Dogs on Young Children’s Learning and Well-Being in Classrooms and Hospitals,” Mary Renck Jalongo, Terri Astorino, and Nancy Bomboy address some of these concerns and discuss how to optimize the positive use of dog companions in therapeutic and educational settings. These include, in brief, working with well-trained dogs, assessing individual children’s comfort levels, preparing kids for dog visits, and caring for the dog’s well-being and comfort as well.
If you are hoping to integrate a dog therapy or reading dog-buddy program into your school, check out the site School Therapy Dogs. It is run by an elementary school counselor in Colorado who has been working with AAT since 2009. She offers these helpful guidelines on working with your administration to approve and run a school therapy dog program: “[have] a binder full of research and examples of dogs working in schools [is] key to gaining the support of upper administration. To this binder, I added documents of insurance, training, vet certificates, and concrete data from students at the school.” She also offers tips on acclimating a new principal to an already established therapeutic canine program.
Even if you aren’t able to incorporate trained buddy and therapy dogs into your curriculum or school life, take these ideas as a reminder that other species can add value, connection, and joy to our lives. Whether you play with or snuggle a pet on a study break, volunteer at an animal shelter, bird watch, ride horses, or interact with animals in another way, they can certainly make life more meaningful and less stressful.
Written by Julia Travers
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