July 19, 2019, by Rupert Knight
A dog’s life?
Children today are more immersed in virtual worlds and often lack the opportunity to interact with people, animals and nature during their formative years. This has then led to issues relating to wellbeing and mental health.
In this post, building on an earlier one in this series on reading dogs, Esther Fulton considers the wider role of dogs within school to increase the interaction with animals and enhance children’s emotional resilience.
Why animals in school?
To promote the wellbeing of their pupils most teachers put time and effort into making their classroom a safe and welcoming environment. The added bonus of having a class pet can make coming to school even more enticing and could prove to play an important role in children’s education, as reported in this Guardian newspaper article. However, class pets do not just refer to small caged animals anymore as dogs in the classroom are becoming more popular. The trend for ‘wellbeing dogs’ has been endorsed by the current education minister, Damian Hinds, who has highlighted that more attention should be on supporting children’s wellbeing and teaching them emotional resilience. This has been reinforced by the educationalist Sir Anthony Seldon in a recent BBC news story:
‘The quickest and biggest hit that we can make to improve mental health in our schools and to make them feel safe for children, is to have at least one dog in every single school in the country’
(BBC news. March 2019)
There has been much research over the last forty years on using therapy dogs in special educational schools and in the USA but the research within UK schools is still limited. The term ‘pet therapy’ was not conceived until the 1960’s when Boris Levinson, an American child psychologist, introduced his own dog to his therapy sessions. This then led to dogs being used within psychiatric hospitals, nursing homes, home health visits, hospices and old people’s homes. Levinson is often linked to the more recent Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) which is now common in American schools where the presence of a dog has ‘contributed to students overall emotional stability’ and has led to ‘students being more attentive, more responsive, and more cooperative with an adult when a dog is present in the classroom’ (Frieson, 2009 p.262). Further studies have implied that interacting with a dog can help reduce emotional anxiety and shown to have a ‘mood improving effect’ on children (Kumasaka, Fujisawa & Masu, 2017).
Reading dogs used within educational settings has become more commonplace and there are now many charitable institutions that offer this e.g. Pets As Therapy Read2Dogs Scheme, Bark and Read etc. (see links below). This has led to improvements in reading confidence and accuracy as well as more enjoyment of reading for pleasure, as pupils enjoy sharing stories with their dog who is completely ‘non-judgmental’. However, using dogs to help pupils’ emotional resilience is still a somewhat new idea.
One school’s approach
Sneinton C of E Primary, one of University of Nottingham’s partnership schools, has taken ‘pet therapy’ to heart. Not only do they provide reading dogs to help encourage reluctant readers but they also have a mixture of teacher’s own dogs coming into their classrooms. These dogs even have their own twitter account.
KS1 Class Teacher, Sarah Peek, in her interview below, talks passionately about the impact that having a dog in school has had, not only for the wellbeing of the pupils but also for the staff. The pupils have learnt about having respect for animals, responding to the dog’s needs and that ‘there is life beyond themselves’. Having a dog who will listen to their problems or give them a lick when they have hurt themselves appears to have made a positive difference to the mood of the classroom. The dogs have also had a calming influence on behaviour as they appear to understand emotions and are available to pupils to stroke or cuddle when they are feeling angry or upset. There can be limitations to having a dog within a school and these have to be taken into account but from talking to Sarah it is obvious that the pros outweigh the cons.
What does this mean for you?
Wouldn’t it be lovely to be able to calm yourself down by stroking a responsive dog, to feel that this dog was listening but not judging you and could indeed be a ‘magic dog’ who took away all your anger? This could be a simple but effective way of improving pupils’ mental wellbeing and their attitude to school as a whole. Could your school accommodate a ‘therapy dog’?
Below are some links to websites that promote the use of dogs in school:
Friesen, L., 2010. Exploring animal-assisted programs with children in school and therapeutic contexts. Early childhood education journal, 37(4), pp.261-267.
Kumasaka, T., Fujisawa, H. and Masu, H., 2017. Changes in Mood of 1st and 2nd Year Elementary School Students when Interacting with Dogs: The Need for Animals in Elementary Education (Part 2). International Medical Journal, 24(6).
As a dog-owner I have seen first hand the calming presence a dog can have on children.Whilst I applaud the creative thinking behind it I do have concerns. Animals can have a serious impact on children with Asthma and other allergies. I recognise that there are important lessons to be learned for children but the RSPCA has been quite vocal in its’ criticism of such schemes.