Review of Literature
Orbit and his handler, a counselor in an elementary school, walk through the halls greeting students. Orbit is a professional therapy dog that comes to school every day to provide support in many different ways for students. A student walks up to the counselor with Orbit and asks to pet the dog. Afterwards the student states “Thank you so much for letting me pet Orbit! That helped me feel better and made my whole day!!”
Stories similar to the one above are being shared more and more with the rise of the use of therapy dogs in schools. With social and emotional health issues on the rise in schools and initiatives to address trauma and suicide, it is necessary to find way to help students. Research shows the use of therapy dogs in schools show emotional, social, physical and physiological benefits in children (Friesen, 2009). A dog can offer more support and stress reducing benefits to a student than talking to an adult or friend (Jalongo, Astorino, & Bomboy, 2004). It has also been found that having a dog in a school helps create a positive and joyful school atmosphere (Beetz, 2013). Boris Levinson is credited as the inventor of the use of animals, specifically dogs, in therapy with children. In 1969 he found that therapy dogs created a more relaxed atmosphere during therapy sessions where children were more likely to ‘open-up’ to the therapist due to the fact that the dog is seen as non-threatening or judgmental (Friesen, 2009). He also anticipated the need for an entirely different intervention for mental health issues that would become more prevalent in the future (Zents, Fisk, & Lauback, 2017). Following Levinson’s research there have been numerous studies on the benefits a therapy dog can offer to children. In 2017, a review of articles written by various individuals on the use of therapy dogs was published. The author’s reviewed 30 sources of information and reported that there are many benefits, which include gains in reading scores, literacy skills and reading motivation as well as that dogs provide significant emotional and social support (Kropp & Shupp, 2017). Many schools have acknowledged the benefits the use of a professional therapy dog can provide in the areas of learning and social emotional health for students.
Defining Therapy Dogs
Working dogs can be categorized as service/assistance dogs or therapy dogs. According to The Alliance of Therapy Dogs (2017), a service dogs is specially and extensively trained to carry out specific duties for their own handlers, typically with physical or mental disabilities. Therapy dogs are also trained but help other people, besides their owners, with emotional, social, or physical difficulties. All therapy dogs are thought of as an Animal- Assisted Intervention (AAI). AAI refers to a structured, goal oriented intervention which purposefully uses animals for therapeutic help in health or education. The three types of AAI include; Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT), Animal Assisted Activities (AAA), and Animal-Assisted Education (AAE). The purpose of AAT is to provide specific and targeted interventions, often tied to goals set by mental or health professionals, to individuals with the use of a therapy dog. The treatment is well documented and progress is closely monitored by a professional in the field (Kirnan, Siminerio, & Wong, 2016). AAT is successful with children because they are more likely to open up when an animal is part of the therapy process and because animals used in therapy are typically calm which creates a less stressful atmosphere (Jalongo et al., 2004). AAA is when groups or individuals, who do not have specific disabilities or specified goals, are able to interact by petting or talking to a therapy dog. The interaction is more informal and there is not a planned action of treatment set by a professional (Kirnan et al., 2016). AAE is similar to AAT in that it is an intervention based on a goal and is specifically planned for an individually with progress monitored. AAE is used specifically in regular or special education classrooms (Kropp & Shupp, 2017). It is important to know that AAT, AAA, and AAE is much more than just bringing a pet or emotional support animal to school or sometimes referred as ‘pet therapy’. Professional therapy dogs used for specific interventions along with their handlers have been thoroughly trained and approved to work together to improve the lives of others (Sheckler, 2017). Nimar and Lundahl (as cited in Kirnan et al., 2016) reviewed several studies of AAT and found that children as compared to adults gain the most emotionally, behaviorally, medically, or academically. They also mentioned that dogs are the most prevalent animal used in AAT.
Physiological Effects
Interactions with dogs can yield positive physical responses in humans. Research has shown humans to experience relaxation, reduced heart rate or blood pressure during and after interacting with a therapy dog. One exploratory study conducted by the School of Medicine Center for Human-Animal Interaction (Barker, Barker, McCain, & Schubert, 2016) recorded the physiological responses in humans when a dog was introduced during a stressful task. Five participants used their own dog while another five were introduced to an unfamiliar therapy dog. The findings suggest that a dog can reduce stress, whether the dog is their own or unfamiliar. However, the results show there were significant reductions in heart rate, cortisol and blood pressure in the participants with the therapy dog. The study does suggest all participants had a positive attitude as a fear of dogs could cause more stress to a person. (Barker et al., 2016).
Gross and fine motor skills in children can also be influenced by the presence of a therapy dog. Gee, Harris & Johnson (2007) found in a case study that children made significant progress on certain gross-motor tasks, such as running, crawling or throwing a ball, with the presence of a therapy dog as compared to other children who were not exposed to a therapy dog. The children also performed the tasks quicker and were more motivated to complete the activities (Gee, et. al., 2007). Children with autism that are given opportunities to groom a therapy dog, take the dog for walks, or play fetch with the dog can develop better gross motor skills (Harris & Sholtis, 2016). Along with gross-motor skills, occupational therapy can be incorporated into AAT when a child with autism by providing chances for the child to buckle collars or leashes or groom the dog (Harris & Sholtis, 2016). In a study investigating perceptions of the use of dogs in schools, Zents, Fisk, and Lauback, (2017), found that many teachers used therapy dogs during physical or occupational therapy sessions with students based on the student’s individual needs. They reported that eighty percent of students thought of the dogs as effective in helping the students succeed in this area along with many others.
Academic Effects
Research suggests therapy dogs have an impact on student learning. In a survey sent across the country to schools that utilize therapy dogs 71% agreed that therapy dogs help improve student learning (Sheckler, 2017). The study did not elaborate on the amount of time the therapy dogs were in the schools or their specific tasks. Daly and Suggs (2010) presented qualitative data from teacher interviews that suggest teachers see animals in schools as a way for children to increase and extend their learning. In a study by Beetz (2012) findings of the use of therapy dogs in schools showed dogs in classrooms fostered a more positive attitude and motivation towards learning in students, which is a required in order for students to effectively learn. The study also suggested that the therapy dog aids in teacher effectiveness because of its ability to reduce stress and create a calmer atmosphere (Beetz, 2013). When students, and teachers, are in the right state of mind it leads to higher achievement for students and teachers (Sheckler, 2017).
One specific way therapy dogs are being used for academics is in reading or literacy programs where dogs take part in AAT or AAA. There are therapy dog reading programs all across the country in libraries, classrooms, and after school programs (Kirnan et al., 2016). There are several organization such as, Pet Partners, Therapy Dogs International, and Intermountain Therapy Animals that train and certify dogs and their handlers to participate in literacy programs (Kropp, Jerri J.|Shupp, 2017). Many of these organizations use a specific reading programs to implement with the dogs. One such program is R.E.A.D. (Reading Education Assistance Dogs). R.E.A.D. is considered AAT because it is a dog and student working together to meet a specific goal. During R.E.A.D. sessions the dog and the child sit together while the handler is nearby ready to ‘speak’ for the dog. In other words, the threat of reading or saying something wrong is taken away by the presence of the dog. For example the handler might tell the child that the dog loved the story so much they want to hear the child retell it (Massengill Shaw, 2013). The program is founded on the principle that children feel more at ease reading to a dog which creates a greater motivation to read and improved reading skills. In a study by Heyer (2007) that used the R.E.A.D. program two groups students who were below grade-level in reading worked with the same teacher but one group worked with dogs and the other did not (as cited in Massengill Shaw, 2013). Students that were in the group with the dog showed better reading scores and reading confidence in students after the program was over. Another study conducted by Le Roux, Schwartz and Stewart (2014) used R.E.A.D. to determine the impact of therapy dogs on grade 3 reading scores. After comparing pre and post test scores from a control group, a group that read with a stuffed animal, and a group that read with a therapy dog, it showed reading comprehension scores to be higher than the other two groups (Le Roux, Swartz, ; Swart, 2014). Bassette and Taber-Daughty (2013) observed the effect reading to a therapy dog had on three students with emotional or behavioral problems who were very reluctant readers. These students were known for being defiant, upset or withdrawn when learning at school. The study found all three students immediately increased reading scores and were motivated and on task during reading. Two students in the study even requested to read extra books not required to be read to the therapy dog. The study did not mention a specific reading program used but did have students reading aloud to dogs while being observed without any help from teachers or handlers (Bassette ; Taber-Doughty, 2013).
“Regardless of the program or method, the use of therapy dogs as an addition to reading programs increases student interest and enthusiasm, improves self-esteem, reduces disruptive behaviors, and leads to improvements in reading and writing skills” (Kirnan et al., 2016, pg 639).
Social and Emotional Effects
Along with the benefits therapy dogs have on student learning, they also have extreme impacts on the social and emotional health of students. As stated in the academic section, learning cannot take place if students do not have their social and emotional needs met. This is one of the most important areas therapy dogs are being used to help students. There have been numerous studies on the positive benefits from animal therapies, especially dogs, have on behavior and social emotional health of students.
One significant study (Prothmann, Bienert, ; Ettrich, 2006) investigated the effects therapy dogs had on child psychotherapy. There were over 100 children and adolescent participants which were divided into two groups. One group was exposed to AAT and the other group received their normal therapy. Participants in the AAT group were allowed to play freely with the dogs during sessions by petting, feeding, or cuddling the dog. Before and after the sessions participants were asked about their mood. The participants in the AAT group showed more positive growth in their mood and state of mind as compared to the other group. “The dog provided the participant to become more psychologically well-balanced. Also, the positive effects were stronger the worse the child felt before contact with the dog” (Prothmann et al., 2006, pg 275).
Concerns and Perceptions on the use of dogs in Schools
There is overwhelming evidence that suggests therapy dogs are beneficial in a school setting. Then why is there not a therapy dog being used in every school and classroom across the country? Common concerns for the use of therapy dogs in schools are allergies, student’s and/or faculty’s fear of dogs, scheduling a time with the therapy dog if a volunteer program is used, sanitation and liability. Bacon (2014) wrote of a survey given to schools reported only 20% use dogs in their schools but 93% would be interested in using dogs if concerns were addressed (as cited in Kropp ; Shupp, 2017).
Many concerns can be addressed to make students and faculty excited to welcome a dog in the school. Allergies are not as much a concern when dogs are properly groomed and bathed causing animal dander to be minimal. Also, adjusting where the dog interacts with students can minimize allergy issues (Jalongo et al., 2004). Children who have a fear of dogs should not be forced to interact act with the dog. They can observe the positive interactions between the dog and other students from a safe distance. In fact, seeing a positive interactions between a dog and a peer model may help them overcome their fear (Jalongo et al., 2004). In fact one study (Kirnan et al., 2016) found that throughout a year of using a therapy dog in the classroom, students who were afraid of dogs eventually took part in sitting, reading and petting the dog. Safety concerns are easily addressed by only using dogs with a certification through an established organization such as Therapy Dogs International (TDI Inc.), Pet Partners or CARES Inc, which require dogs to pass multiple tests showing a gentle demeanor and obedience (Jalongo et al., 2004). Also, most pet therapy organizations provide liability insurance for owners and their dogs. The most important thing to remember when using therapy dogs in schools is to prepare, inform and educate the parents, students and faculty on every aspect of the therapy dog and reasons it is being used as a tool in school. When faculty were surveyed about their thoughts on a therapy dog starting at school, there were varied thoughts and skepticism. Some faculty even reported having a small fear of dogs. However, after some education and the program was established every one saw the benefits the dogs provided to students and staff (Zents et al., 2017). Although there are concerns with the use of therapy dogs in schools, the positive effects on students far outweigh the concerns (Sheckler, 2017).