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There isn’t just one type of personality or individual who would benefit from a therapy dog, as dogs provide support and comfort to a broad range of people with differing needs. Integrating dogs into classrooms has helped students to progress in their studies, ease stress and anxiety, and overall serve as a comforting tool for trauma victims.
As if that isn’t enough reason to explore integrating classroom therapy dogs, consider the ways in which dogs are able to connect with individuals in ways humans are often incapable. With the appropriate training and boundary setting, including dogs in the classroom can be a valuable tool for students across a broad spectrum of needs.
Therapy Versus Service Dogs
There are distinct differences between service dogs and therapy animals. Service dogs are working dogs trained to accommodate a single person’s needs. They are a companion animal allowed on airplanes and into stores and restaurants without any question. While therapy dogs are also trained animals that must pass a series of tests, they offer therapeutic services to numerous people — sometimes not revisiting the same person more than once.
Therapy animals are managed by their primary caretaker or owner. The responsibility of the dog is thereby removed from the teacher or educational instructor. Therapy dogs are typically trained from a young age but often not as intensely as a service dog. Any dog can become a therapy dog, as long as they are able to pass the 10 point test system to obtain certification.
Unlike service dogs, therapy dogs are not trained to treat a specific disorder or issue. On the contrary, they are available to any and all students to use as they need. Inserting therapy dogs into the classroom to help students become more resilient to the adversities in life is one of their many benefits.
According to Concordia University, about 700,000 children are abused in the United States each year, and more than 60 percent of students age 17 and younger have been exposed to crime, violence, and abuse. Therapy dogs are comfort companions who offer a calming and safe space for students to let their guard down. The affection therapy dogs offer is unlike any other.
Many children are too young to recognize the symptoms of PTSD and trauma-related issues. It isn’t until they have had time to interact with a therapeutic animal that they feel able to express their feelings. For example, therapy dogs were used to help relieve tension in those who survived the mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida and were very helpful to the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Reading aloud can be an anxiety-inducing activity for all levels of readers. Many of the feelings associated with making a mistake while reading are human-influenced emotions, such as shame, embarrassment, and timidness.
In 1999, Intermountain Therapy Animals recognized the value in students reading to animals and established the Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.). Through the R.E.A.D. program, students get to interact (pet, cuddle, lay) with a trained therapy dog while reading them a story without any judgment.
The R.E.A.D. program is free of cost to the school and the students. The R.E.A.D. program and others similar to it have helped in improving students’ reading skills by 12 percent in a 10-week period, according to a study performed by the University of California.
This same application can be used in other realms of education. A dog, combined with many other elements can inspire creativity in more left-brained students, help to promote social skills through trustworthy interactions, and be applied when learning other subjects.
Some students are better at hiding issues than others. Therapy dogs are a non-judgemental sentient being that all students can connect with. Even students who are excelling in school and have no perceived reason to have a therapy dog may still benefit from the presence of an animal.
Nearly one in three students will develop an anxiety disorder by the time they turn 18 years old. This can be the result of their home life, a change in brain chemistry associated with changing hormones, or induced by stress at school. Therapy dogs have the ability to calm students who have anxiety so that they can better focus on school.
Additional potential benefits of introducing therapy dogs into the classroom include:
- Increased school attendance as students look forward to their interactions with the dog.
- Improved self-confidence in both their learning and their social interactions at school.
- Increased awareness of their emotions and how to appropriately handle them in the classroom.
Some schools have refrained from implementing therapy dogs into the classroom due to perceived risks. However, the potential benefits for the students may outweigh the perceived risks after conducting an assessment. Sharing the unconditional love and comfort of a therapy dog may have long-lasting effects that could benefit students long after they obtain their diploma.