Class Pets and Pet Therapy

Anyone else LOVE bringing their dog to school?!


I don’t do it often, but when I hold weekend rehearsals, or we have Pro-D days and I have some kids coming in, I love bringing Duke to school with me!


Duke is an 80-lb Shar-pei cross who joined my family 7 years ago. He’s now 11 years old, and has gone through a complete metamorphosis since coming into our home. He is healthier, happier, and so much sweeter and more loving than I could have ever imagined.



Personal Anecdote Time!


When I first started bringing Duke to work with me, it was when I worked as a counselor at an in-patient addiction treatment home for teenage boys. Some of these youth were mandated to attend treatment and some were there of their own volition, but whichever reason brought them to treatment, they were all experiencing the same isolation. Though in some ways this isolation was an important first step in their recovery, the dislocation can be so problematic for healing (more on this in a future post on addictions!) Part of treatment was daily outings, such as hiking, swimming, etc., which are all things Duke and I do together! So I thought, “Hey, why not bring Duke and see how it goes…”


Now, Duke has a pretty tough demeanor but is a big softy, and this mirrors many of the young men I had the privilege to know. Duke would see us arrive at the centre, and he’d immediately be filled with excitement! I’d arrive at 7am, and let Duke off leash as soon as I walked through the door. It was then a chorus of toe-taps and doors opening, as each boy tried to invite Duke into their room and feel the privilege of being the “chosen one” that Duke snuggles with until the 8am wake-up call.


The tenderness and warmth the boys showed toward Duke was such a gift.


Some background on Duke - Duke has sensitive paws after years of struggling with untreated allergies in his previous home. He cannot walk on gravel very well, and needs regular foot baths and ointment rubbed into his toes.


One of my favourite memories is of Duke running in the backyard at the centre with the boys throwing his ball for fetch. Suddenly, Duke stubs his toe and yelps, and immediately drops his ball and picks up his foot.


Meanwhile, I’m in the house helping prep lunch for our outing and chatting with another resident, when I hear, “KIM! DUKE’S HURT”


My heart sank and I was filled with fear.


I rush outside, expecting blood, broken bones, and a trip to emergency. In my head I was already planning my call to my manager and a reserve counselor.


I get outside and Duke is surrounded by the other 4 boys in the house. One is giving him pats, while one boy holds Duke’s paw gently, and another pours water from his water bottle over Duke’s sore paw. One of the boys runs over and says “We have to cancel our hike. Duke’s paws are too sore. It’s okay. We’ll stay behind with him. I’m gonna get my blanket and make him a bed on the couch.”


Well, Duke is a smart dog. He knows how to milk it. As soon as I walk over and look at his paw, he grabs his ball and starts tossing it around, and running through the yard like nothing happened - you better believe he loved the attention!


20 minutes later we were in the car on our way for our group hike.


This is a long winded way of saying - I believe in pet therapy! And here’s why!





Research on Pet Therapy


Though the anecdote above doesn’t provide any scientific backing, nor can it be used as research, it really demonstrates the power that pets have. The boys I worked with in treatment were used to posturing, many of them coming from custody, where “toughness” also meant safety. To see a group of boys demonstrate strength through compassion, caring, and nurturing, as opposed to aggression and posturing is indicative of the power of pet therapy!


Better yet, this may have been an anecdote, but actual researchers proved the benefit! Haynes (1991) conducted a study to see if bringing pets into a mental health unit of a prison would decrease rates of aggressive outburst and violence. Haynes found that, after 4 months with the same puppies, the rates of aggression and incidents decreased by almost half!


The implementation and initial research behind Pet Therapy is credited to psychiatrist Boris Levinson and his dog, Jingles! Levison noticed a young boy, who was formerly uncommunicative and withdrawn, interacting in increasingly positive ways. He ended up engaging Jingles in this young boys’ treatment. Levinson then went on to study the benefits of animals with young children and promoted having pets at home and in treatment. (Cusack, 1989).


Furthermore, the benefit of pets on children and adolescent mental health has been proven repeatedly in different settings (Cusack, 1989). Children struggling with selective mutism had shown signs of breaking their silence to ask about dogs when they are on the ward, or to speak directly to the dogs. Parents of children struggling with depression and anxiety also note a marked improvement in their child’s emotion regulation and overall demeanor.



Implications for Education


The study of Pet Therapy has implications for our use of class pets in elementary school, and poses a strong case for bringing our pets to school with us in instances that we cannot have a class pet. Young (2012) found that the use of a golden retriever helped to reduce test anxiety and improve overall test scores in a group of nursing students.


The use of pets can reduce feelings of depression and anxiety and support mindfulness skills, help people relax, and provide an immediate relief during anxiety attacks. Though most of this research is conducted with dogs, there is also a large amount of evidence to support equine therapy.


So what about smaller animals (many of which we end up with as classroom pets - I remember “anoles” in my grade 6 class… they weren’t cuddly)?


In most cases, the most effective pet for pet therapy can be held or pet, is at least a year old, and has been with the person for at least 6 months. Larger therapy animals (such as dogs, cats, or horses) demonstrate they take less time to build this kind of attachment and can provide benefits in a relatively short time frame, that perhaps, a lizard or hamster may not provide (Animal Assisted Therapy Research). Furtherm


ore, this can make it challenging for a class pet to provide these kinds of therapeutic supports, given that class turnover is typically a 10 month period. This may be further advocation for a teacher bringing their own dog to school, which may prove more useful as a therapeutic tool.


Considerations:


Bringing in a pet requires a lot of consideration, both to ensure your student’s safety and your pet’s!


  1. Classrooms can be an incredibly stimulating place. Consider your pet’s demeanor, if they have experience in large groups and in high energy environments. Can your pet be comfortable around this many young people?

  2. Know your students! Having a pet in the room can be an incredibly stimulating experience, depending on age and experience, and teaching students how to be safe with a pet will be an important step before inviting your pet into the class.

  3. Making sure your pet is well exercised before they come with you can help to keep them calm and burn some of the anxious energy. Again, consider your pet’s needs and how to make sure they feel relaxed and comfortable! They may benefit from their own bed, a private/quiet place (like your office) or some of their own comfort toys around, at least the first few times, to keep them calm.

  4. Try slow introductions. For me, the treatment centre was ideal. We only had 6 beds, which meant, max. Between staff and youth we would have only 10-12 people in the house at a time. This is also why I stick to bringing Duke for weekend rehearsals. We’ll have a smaller group of students that I have a stronger relationship with and I know will be safe with him and he will be safe with them.

  5. Start with short introductions before diving into a full day!

  6. Some students have allergies, fears, etc. of animals. Make sure to identify and consider these before surprising your class with a puppy visit! As animal lovers, we may not think of these things (guilty!! I learned this the hard way). ALWAYS ask, and make sure your pet won’t threaten your student's feeling of safety.

  7. You will definitely get less work done! I think this is okay, but think about what you have planned for the day. Students will want breaks with your pet, and that’s the point! A few moments of snuggle time, play time, or belly rubs, can significantly decrease feelings of anxiety! So perhaps it appears that less work is getting done or you cover less of your lesson than planned, but perhaps you’ve helped a student enter the right frame of mind to learn at their best! “Productivity” is relative…

  8. Some school districts may have a policy against you bringing your pet during the school day! Make sure you investigate if you’re allowed to do this!

  9. I said it above, but I’ll say it again - make sure you know your kids and your pet! Do not put your pet in a precarious situation in which they do not feel safe and respond inappropriately with aggression or other behaviours that may be disruptive or dangerous to your pet or your students. This can be a liability issue, but if you know your pet, you know your kids, and your taking the necessary precautions to keep them both happy and safe, it can be a fun, fulfilling, and stress-reducing day for everyone!


In Conclusion


Overall, there is really promising evidence that pets (primarily dogs and horses, given the expediency at which their powers work) can provide a great deal of emotion regulation and de-stress! I know this sounds obvious, but thought it may be helpful for those of you considering adding your dog (or cat, or horse…) to your classroom once in a while, I hope this will be the push you need to investigate further!



Do you bring your pet to school? Have you found it helpful for both your pet and students?? Comment below!



P.S. This is my shameless plug for adoption. If this article has you considering adding a dog or cat to your family, either for yourself or your kids, please consider adoption over a breeder. Do your research on the pet you’re adopting. Dogs don’t go to shelters because they’re bad dogs. Dogs go to shelters because they have inexperienced owners. Just be the good owner. Meet their needs. They will thank you, every day, for the rest of their lives.



Works Cited:


Animal Assisted Therapy Research. UCLA Health. https://www.uclahealth.org/pac/animal-assisted-therapy


Cusack, O. (1989). Pets and Mental Health (1st ed.). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315784618


Hayes, M. (1991).Pet Therapy: Program Lifts Spirits, Reduces Violence in Institution's Mental Health Unit. Corrections Today. Volume: 53 Issue: 5 Dated: (August 1991) Pages: 120,122


Jones, M. G., Rice, S. M., & Cotton, S. M. (2019). Incorporating animal-assisted therapy in mental health treatments for adolescents: A systematic review of canine assisted psychotherapy. PloS one, 14(1), e0210761. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0210761


Lupkin, Sydney. (2014). Can Any Animal Be a Therapy Animal? https://abcnews.go.com/Health/animal-therapy-animal/story?id=24649527


Young, Judith S. Pet Therapy, Journal of Christian Nursing: October/December 2012 - Volume 29 - Issue 4 - p 217-221

doi: 10.1097/CNJ.0b013e31826701a7