Therapy Dogs in Schools: The Benefit to Students, Teachers
By Mike Callahan
Therapy dogs are canines that are trained to provide comfort and affection to people in retirement homes, nursing homes, hospices, schools, hospitals and disaster areas, and to people with autism. Therapy dogs work in animal-assisted activities and animal-assisted therapy, typically alongside their owner/handlers who consider them to be their personal pets. Schools across the country are reaching out to therapy dog programs for the many benefits they provide to students. Schools can be extremely stressful settings for students, creating a strain on resources that can help young people cope with emotions, disorders or relationships. Therapy dogs provide an inexpensive way to assist students in focusing on their education. They provide a comforting presence that should be available to young people in need.
Social and Mental Benefits
From helping young children read to relieving the intense stress faced by university students, dogs are an increasingly familiar part of school programs across the country. Worries about allergies and safety fears are steadily giving way to higher reading scores and improved social interaction as administrators succumb to the charms of these lovable and loving assistants.
Administrators and teachers can face a lot of barriers in seeking to adopt new programs, and not surprisingly, can be resistant to changing or altering current programs. Bringing dogs into schools can be seen as risky and loaded with concerns about potential liability. Implementing an animal facilitated therapy program will take work, coordination and support from various sources. However, the benefits to students, teachers and the administration have been shown to be well worth it. Gathering needed support may sometimes be a struggle, but the gains from a well-run dog therapy program in a school far outweigh the initial efforts in setting up a viable program. Being knowledgeable and sharing supporting research will help provide answers to the potential concerns of interested parties.
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 counselors 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 other psycho/social problems. 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.
A therapy dog’s primary duty is to make affectionate contact with unfamiliar people in sometimes-stressful environments. The most important characteristic of a therapy dog is its temperament. Therapy dogs must have a calm and stable temperament and must be able to tolerate children, other animals, crowded public places and other situations that may be stressful, without becoming distressed or dangerous. A good therapy dog must be friendly, confident, gentle in all situations and must be comfortable and contented with being petted and handled, sometimes clumsily.
The simple act of petting a dog is shown to reduce blood pressure. Lower levels of stress hormones, like cortisol, and an increase in oxytocin are also associated with pet therapy and contribute to respiratory and cardiovascular health. In short, reducing feelings of anxiety and depression positively affects physical health. Most therapy dog programs are funded mostly through donations, and the fees for training and certification are almost always provided by the dogs’ owners. The dogs also stay with their families, not at the school, so the cost for food, supplies, and veterinary bills go to the owners of the dogs. Having therapy dogs in schools is cheap — much cheaper than hiring extra counselors or treating stress-induced disorders at medical clinics.
Breeds and Requirements
Therapy dogs come in all shapes, sizes and breeds and they differ from service dogs in many regards.
Therapy Dogs must:
- Be well-tempered
- Enjoy human touch
- Comfortable in busy or stressful settings
- Not shed excessively
- Love to cheer others up!
Practically any dog, regardless of breed, may be eligible for therapy dog certification, provided it can pass the required training and temperament testing, such as the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen Test. This test demonstrates that a dog can be left with a trusted person, if necessary, and will maintain training and good manners.
Mike Callahan is the Content Manager at companionanimals.org. For more information, or to reach him, visit www.companionanimals.org.