Can Therapy Dogs in School Benefit Students?

When students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (MSD) in Parkland, Florida, returned to class following the deadly shooting in February, they were greeted by therapy dogs trained by the Humane Society of Broward County (HSBC). “The attention and affection of an animal is often a source of relief during difficult times like these,” said Marni Bellavia, Manager of the Animal Assisted Therapy Program at HSBC. The dogs came to classes and visited with students throughout their first day back. “Since February 15, the Animal Assisted Therapy teams have been active on a daily basis at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School as well as the elementary and middle schools in Parkland, noted Bellavia. “They have also been providing comfort to our community at large, including providing comfort to our first responders.”

dog wearing Eagle T-shirt
Karma, one of HSBC’s therapy dogs.

Since the school shooting that took the lives of 17 people, many of the Florida students now suffer from anxiety and PTSD and were reluctant to return to the site of the violence. Having trained therapy dogs on site gave anxious students a way to feel comforted and safe. Students living with excessive anxiety cannot concentrate on learning. The opportunity to interact with therapy dogs helped create a more relaxed environment.

The students were so enthusiastic about having the dogs at the school that an MSD alumni even made t-shirts for the dogs making each of them an “Honorary Eagle.”

But comfort dogs are not only used after tragic events. Other private and public school educators have started introducing comfort dogs to improve student behavior and learning outcomes. Early programs show that putting more dogs in schools could lead to positive results.

Schools Regularly Using Comfort Dogs

Burgundy Farm Country Day School in Alexandria, Virginia, has made comfort dogs part of the school day. Burgundy has a handful of dogs that come to school each morning to create a positive energy that helps students relax. According to the Jeff Sindler, the head of Burgundy who started bringing dogs to the private institution, the dogs also help support an environment of acceptance, support, and curiosity.

Burgundy isn’t the only school to begin using comfort dogs. In fact, the Department of Education (DOE) launched a pilot program in 2016 that introduced comfort dogs to seven schools in New York City. In 2017, the comfort dog program was expanded to nearly 40 of the city’s schools. Chancellor Carmen Farina says that the dogs “encourage students to socialize and build stronger relationships.”

Dogs Help Students Learn

The DOE’s Comfort Dog program does more than help students relax. It also helps students reach educational goals. Researchers at Yale University have created a Mutt-i-grees Curriculum that shows teachers how to use dogs in their classrooms. The company has programs for libraries, physical fitness facilities, and home learning.

While comfort dogs in schools is still not a common occurrence, the success of the DOE’s program may encourage more educators to consider the benefits of giving students opportunities to interact with dogs during school hours.

Why dogs?

Dogs and humans have been living and working together for about 30 thousand years. During this time, dogs have learned how to respond to humans in ways that other animals can rarely mimic. For instance, dogs know to look humans in the eye. And when people point at objects, dogs look in the direction of their pointing finger instead of staring at their hands.

The close connection between dogs and people make it possible for the species to comfort each other during crises and stressful situations. Harvard Medical School uses a dog to help students manage stress. The health experts recommend animal-assisted therapy to help people living with a variety of conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), phobias, and serious illnesses like cancer and chronic heart failure.

Parents who teach their kids at home, via traditional homeschooling or online learning, may want to consider using a pet to help students feel more relaxed and comfortable. Kids can learn from their pets and, now, maybe pets can help kids learn!

What do you think about having dogs in schools? Will their presence create a stronger learning environment or will it create distractions for students?

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