The presence of therapy dogs in classrooms is emerging as a heartwarming and effective solution to support children with emotional or behavioral issues. Education professionals and researchers have found that the positive impact of these furry friends extends far beyond the classroom, helping children thrive emotionally, academically, and socially. This article explores the heartwarming and scientifically-backed connection between therapy dogs and children’s mental health.
The Comforting Canine Connection:
It’s a scene familiar to many pet owners – after a long day at school, children come home, and the soothing presence of their family dog has an almost magical effect. Dogs have a unique way of calming our souls and bringing us joy, but their influence on children’s well-being goes much deeper than we may realize.
A recent study sheds light on the remarkable bond between children and canines. The research, conducted by Kerstin Meints and her team at the University of Lincoln in England, revealed the profound effects of therapy dogs on children’s stress levels. The study involved 149 children aged 8-9, both neurotypical and non-neurotypical, in Britain, and it introduced them to therapy dogs and guided relaxation exercises.
The Study’s Findings:
Children in the study were divided into three groups. One group had the privilege of spending 20 minutes twice a week with a trained therapy dog and its handler. They engaged in activities like petting the dog, asking questions, and playing. Another group focused on relaxation exercises, and a third group served as a control.
The results were remarkable. The children who spent time with the therapy dogs exhibited significantly lower levels of cortisol, the body’s stress hormone, as compared to their peers in the relaxation and control groups. This finding was particularly groundbreaking because it demonstrated that dog-assisted interventions could effectively reduce stress in children, both with and without special educational needs, over the course of a school term.
The Therapeutic Potential of Canines:
Ali Spikestein, coordinator of the Paws and Play dog program at Mount Sinai Kravis Children’s Hospital in New York City, affirms the therapeutic potential of dogs. She works with her hospital’s therapy dogs to provide comfort to children who are in pain or struggling with the hospital environment. Ms. Spikestein believes that this study’s findings are exciting and promising, emphasizing the positive role dogs can play in calming otherwise healthy children in school settings.
The Need for Further Research:
While the study’s results are encouraging, experts stress the importance of more research into animal-assisted interventions for children. Dr. Meints hopes to see controlled trials and longer-term studies that explore the frequency and duration of dog-assisted therapy sessions. Questions about whether children need physical contact with the dogs during sessions or if their mere presence is enough also need further investigation. Group or individual therapy is another aspect that warrants examination.
A Difference Between Trained Animals and Household Pets:
It’s essential to distinguish between therapy animals, like the trained dogs in the study, and household pets. Dr. Arun Handa, an attending psychiatrist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, points out that while there is a difference, household pets can provide comfort and support to children. However, children must learn how to interact safely and respectfully with dogs, ensuring a positive experience for both.
The heartwarming connection between children and therapy dogs is undeniable, and research continues to unveil the profound benefits of these furry companions in classrooms. Beyond lowering stress levels, therapy dogs encourage enthusiasm for learning and help children fit in better with their peers. As the bond between children and canines grows stronger, it’s clear that these loyal four-legged friends have a special place in our schools and in the hearts of our children, providing them with the support and comfort they need to thrive emotionally and academically.