Given the impact therapy dogs can have on overall student well-being, schools around the country are increasingly adopting therapy dog programs as an inexpensive way of providing academic, social, and emotional support for students. The human-animal bond can impact people and animals in positive ways. Research shows therapy dogs can reduce stress physiologically (cortisol levels) and increase attachment responses that trigger oxytocin - a horomone that increases trust in humans.
Dogs also react positively to animal-assisted activities. In response to the human-animal bond, dogs produce oxytocin and decrease their cortisol levels when connecting with their owner. Often dogs feel the same when engaging in animal assisted activities as if they were at home, depending on the environmental context.
The human animal bond can impact people and animals in positive ways, as supported through research documented by the Ohio University Libraries/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND.
What are therapy dogs?
The role of therapy dogs is to positively react and respond supportively to people and their environment, under the guidance and direction of their owner/handler. For example, an individual might be encouraged to gently pat or talk to a dog to teach sensitive touch, calm interaction, modeling appropriate behaviors, or by following directions.
Therapy dogs can also be used as part of animal assisted therapy. This approach aims to improve a student’s social, cognitive and emotional functioning. A healthcare professional who uses a therapy dog in treatment may be viewed as less threatening, potentially increasing the connection between the client and professional.
There are also animal-assisted activities, which is an umbrella term covering many different ways animals can be used to help humans. One example is to facilitate emotional or physical mental health and well being through pet therapy or the presence of therapy dogs. One of the goals of this program is by implementing these strategies into our self-contained classrooms, and embedding fundamental principles of animal-assisted activities into our curriculum, that we can ultimately better serve our students with special needs. In addition, Research suggests that using therapy dogs in response to traumatic events can help reduce symptoms of depression, post traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety.
Benefits of therapy dogs
Animal assisted therapy can:
● teach empathy and appropriate interpersonal skills
● help individuals develop social skills
● be soothing and the presence of animals can more quickly build rapport between the professional and client, and
● improve individual’s skills to pick up social cues imperative to human relationships. Professionals can process that information and use it to help clients see how their behaviour affects others.
More recently, therapy dogs are being used as a form of engagement with students at school.
Research shows therapy dogs can be used to assist with social/emotional learning needs. Pioneer Library System/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND