Classroom dogs may seem more of a distraction than a benefit, but more and more studies are showing that having almost any kind of pet in class can bring significant benefits to students. A major study conducted jointly by the Pet Care Trust and the American Humane Society published in 2015 found the top three benefits to students from having pets in the classroom were improved learning outcomes in the areas of care and compassion, responsibility and science and nature.
The main school-wide benefits were improvements in classroom social interactions, classroom behavioural issues and class participation.
While acknowledging the benefits of classroom pets, articipating teachers also reported some challenges. Although the Pet Care Trust provided most of the funding through grants there were some additional costs that had to be funded. The two other most important challenges were caring for the animals out of school hours, especially during weekends and holidays and managing the students’ interactions with the animals.
Dogs, in particular, require a lot of effort to ensure their physical and emotional needs are met.
Among the many benefits dogs bring to the classroom, the Australian Companion Animal Council lists the following:
Physical Benefits of a Companion Dog
Having a companion dog can help reduce blood pressure, help with pain management and provide tactile stimulation. It also gives you motivation to walk, move and stimulates the senses.
Social Benefits of a Companion Dog
Having a dog around helps boost your self-esteem, it gives you a topic for discussion and helps promote interaction with others.
Cognitive Benefits of Companion Dogs
A dog companion helps stimulate game playing, problem solving and memory.
Emotional Benefits of Companion Dogs
Dogs tend to lift your spirits, promote your self-esteem and often help you gain acceptance from others.
Environmental Benefits of Companion Dogs
Having a dog visit a classroom can change a sterile environment into a fun and lively place. The heightened mood can continue long after the dog has left.
In research quoted by the Charlottes Litter project, teachers reported improvements in various skills such as reading but also that dogs contributed to emotional and rational development. School counsellors found that the presence of a dog can help students work through issues such as bullying, anger management and other social and emotional problems.
In a case study published in Teaching Exceptions Children Plus, which dealt with the results of bringing dogs into classrooms for children with behavioural or emotional disorders, parents and teachers reported the following beneficial outcomes.
Students attitudes towards school improved.
Students found companionship with the dog.
Students used the dog to remain in control of their emotions and behaviors in order to prevent them from entering into emotional crises
Students used the dog as a de-escalation tool to calm their minds and bodies when they did enter into an emotional crisis.
Students demonstrated self-regulation by managing their behaviors toward the dog through appropriate verbal and physical interactions, no acts of aggression were directed toward the dog
Students' peer interactions became more frequent and positive.
Students' interactions in the home setting increased
Parents felt the inclusion of the dog was of educational value.
Students' learning was extended by fostering growth in respect, responsibility, and empathy
Introducing Therapy Dogs into a School
Charlotte Bacon was a victim of the Sandy Hook School shootings in December 2012. In the aftermath of the shooting, her parents saw the terrific benefits therapy dogs could offer survivors. To honor their daughter and with the help of a community organization called Newton Kindness they formed Charlotte’s Litter. Charlotte’s litter promotes the use of therapy dogs in the classroom by providing staff and resources to navigate the problems faced by school staff when they plan to introduce a dog therapy program.
Starting a dog therapy program in a school requires a lot of hard work. Many of the staff will be reluctant to change existing programs to accommodate dogs. The eventual benefits of dogs in the classroom will far outweigh the initial problems but that doesn’t make the task any easier.
It is important that the proponents of the program have done their research and can address the many concerns which could be raised by parents or staff. There are organizations such as Pet Partners and Therapy Dogs International which can help with this. Incidentally, both these organizations can help interested people train as therapy dog handlers
Some of the Most Common Concerns Raised About Classroom Dogs
Legal Liability of Schools Using Classroom Dogs
This is often a real concern. Let’s be honest – dogs can bite and people can sue. If you use a volunteer and dog from one of the organizations mentioned above, it is likely that they will come with liability insurance in place. In other cases, it is important your plans are discussed with the school’s legal advisers.
Consent forms should also be provided for children and parents to make them fully aware of any risks. This could possibly minimize the risk of legal action. Of course, this should also be discussed with your legal advisers.
Allergic Reactions to Classroom Dogs.
Many children experience allergic reactions when in close contact with dogs. These reactions can include runny nose and eyes and swelling or itchiness of the membranes around these areas.
Dogs licking the skin can cause redness.
Coughing, wheezing or shortness of breath up to 30 minutes after contact with a dog.
Rashes on areas of exposed skin
A severe asthma attach (for people who already suffer from asthma)
The only guaranteed way to avoid these reactions is to totally avoid contact with dogs.
Handlers and dogs from organizations such as those mentioned earlier will have taken strict hygiene precautions. According to Healthline one of the ways help reduce a child’s chances of experiencing these reactions is to expose them to dogs and other pets at an early age. They also describe a number of medications, natural remedies and other precautions which will help reduce the chances of an allergic reaction.
For a handler and a dog to be certified by reliable therapy dog organizations they are required to undergo regular training and veterinarian checks. Handlers are trained to keep alert for potential danger to the children, staff or their own dogs.
How to Prepare for a Classroom Dog
Just like any other change to the teaching program, introducing classroom dogs to a school needs thorough planning.
As we have seen, having a dog in the classroom brings many benefits. However, the decision to introduce a dog should not be unilateral. Ideally the dog you choose should be certified by an organisation such as Pet Partners, Therapy Dogs International or The Delta Society. This makes the whole process a bit easier.
Holding Preliminary Meetings
The first step should be to get all stakeholders such as teachers, parents and students involved by holding a series of meetings. The object of these meetings should be to outline the ideas and goals of the program, to gain their support and to find out if any of the people who would come in regular contact with the dog suffers from dog-related phobias or allergies. If someone who will be part of the program does suffer from allergies or has strong opposition to the program it may be better to shelve the idea for the time being.
Finding a Dog for the Classroom
As previously outlined it is better for the dog to be supplied by an approved dog therapy organisation.
If this solution is not possible, you need to carefully choose a dog. Some of the breeds that have been successfully used as classroom dogs include Toy Poodle, Labrador, West Highland Terrier and Golden Retriever.
According to the TECP group it is better for the class teacher or the individual who is running the program to own the classroom dog. This way the issue of who cares for the dog in the evenings, at weekends and during holidays is taken care of
The welfare of the dog is equally important to that of the students. If the dog becomes stressed, he must be immediately removed for the safety of all concerned.
This is a long-term project and there needs to be an ongoing commitment for the veterinarian care, grooming, feeding and welfare of the dog.
Classroom Procedures That Should Be Established For Management of the Classroom Dog.
The most important consideration when implementing the policy is to ensure the safety of all participants.
The classroom dog should be left alone when eating or resting
Students should not be allowed to remove items from the dog’s mouth unless it part of organized play
Students should not take the dog outside the classroom never without a teacher.
The classroom dog should have a designated spot for defecation and urination. The teacher should be responsible for the removal of feces.
Occasionally a student may become physical aggressive towards the dog. There should be a designated spot where the dog can be placed for safety.
The dog should not be permitted in the lunch room.
There are many benefits of having a dog at school. However, there can be pitfalls. A great deal of work is needed to start and maintain the program.
Before starting out it useful to speak to a school that has been through the process and listen to their recommendations. Hiring a consultant to assist you through the early stages can help you avoid some of the potential problems