Calling all teachers! Pay close attention because I’m going to give you my best kept secret for success in your classrooms this school year: A PET!
I had my eyes opened 12 years ago when therapy dogs were just being introduced for reading programs in select elementary schools. My then eight year-old daughter, Karley had been approached about training our pug Raisin for such a program. Three months later they became the youngest therapy dog team in the nation.
Each week Karley took Raisin to local elementary schools and worked with struggling “at-risk” students. While she (and Raisin) were beyond excited, I was as scared senseless. These were not the well-mannered children seated Indian-style in a circle calmly petting a dog, but boisterous, out-of-control kids, screaming profanities, throwing tantrums and chairs. These children were more than most behavioral specialists and seasoned teachers could manage, let alone a new therapy dog team as green as Kermit-the-frog.
What I witnessed over that school year was nothing short of miraculous. Just having a dog in the classroom for these students to sit with, talk to, read to, and pet, completely turned them around. Behavior dramatically improved because they were motivated not to miss their “reading with Raisin” session.
By the end of the school year, every child was reading at or above grade level and best of all, confidence and enjoyment in school was off the charts. These children once labeled “problem kids” destined to fall through the cracks, were instead pronounced “success stories”. And it was all the result of a free therapy dog program.
Just bringing a dog into the classroom brought more positive changes than you can shake a stick at! Just look:
1. Decreased Behavioural Problems:
In some of the schools we visited, behavior problems were an extremely serious issue. Typically, 3 out of 10 young students suffered from a behavior disorder bad enough to interfere with learning and development. Students had far fewer disciplinary actions after dogs were introduced. Their behavior greatly improved towards both their teachers and fellow students. Additionally, parents reported that children seemed more interested in school as a result of having the therapy dog visits.
2. Reduction in Truancy Problems
Many elementary schools we regularly visited had severe truancy problems. Typically the students with the poorest attendance records were also participating in our program. A handful of students previously missing 40 days of school or more, had nearly perfect attendance once the therapy dog program was introduced. Seeing the dogs was a key motivator to come to school each day.
3. Improved Reading Skills
Watching children practice their skills by reading to a dog was fascinating. Normally shy, embarrassed students, came alive choosing stories and doing their best to read to the dogs. The dogs never judged or made fun of them. Quite the opposite! They loved the attention. On top of spending time with a favorite therapy dog, students were also offered incentives. After reading 10 books, students earned a book of their choice “pawtographed” with a stamped paw print of their favorite therapy dog.
My daughter was so inspired by the children’s curiosity about her Pug Raisin, she wrote and published a heartwarming and inspiring story “Raisin, -A Doggie’s Tale…” which taught children to be responsible pet owners and was the fictional story of Raisin’s own “RUFF” beginnings. This book motivated the kids to meet their literacy goals and is currently available at the link below.
4. Social Development
Having dogs in the classroom was especially helpful in teaching students social skills. There was a notable decrease in discipline issues and tension in the classroom with the addition of the dogs. Students learned that their behavior and actions make a difference.
Students showed an increase in sensitivity and awareness for the feelings and needs of others-both animals and humans. Interestingly, young boys who, in our culture, often don’t get the chance to practice nurturing skills the way girls do, became much more compassionate.
5. Teaching Responsibility
Having a dog or pet in the classroom may be a student’s first opportunity to care for another living thing. With dogs or even smaller classroom pets, teachers can distribute chores among the class. Involving students in the daily care of classroom animals helps teach responsibility. Simple tasks such as filling the hamster’s water bottle or measuring the cup of kibble to feed the rabbit each day, are wonderful learning opportunities. Often a child follows through in their own grooming as they see the importance of brushing their teeth and washing.
6. A Decline or End in Bullying
Bullying is a serious problem in so many classrooms, with children anxious about school for fear of taunting and abuse. Dogs can make a huge difference in the fight against bullies. Dogs visiting schools teach kids about compassion and fairness. Kids identify with animals, and show empathy for dogs. It was found that violent behavior in participating students declined by 55%, and general aggression went down 62%.
7. Help With Autism
Children with autism typically have trouble with concentration and interactions with others. Having a dog in the classroom helps with both socialization and focus. Autistic children were able to sit calmly and work for longer periods with the presence of a dog. The children were also far less anxious and rigid. When the children did get upset it was less likely to become a tantrum.
8. Allergy Alerts
Just as dogs can be used to detect drugs, bombs, and blood sugar levels, they can also be used to detect life threatening allergies such as to peanuts. Although schools often enact policies designed to help students avoid the problematic allergens, mistakes can happen. For students with severe allergies, these dogs can be life-savers and also provide peace-of-mind to parents and schools.
Should any of you teachers wish to bring a pet or therapy dog reading program into your classroom you can expect more than just happier students. Shari Young Kuchenbecker, Ph.D., research psychologist at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, points out, “The child who cares for a pet knows that what he does matters, and so he’ll want to do more of it. The more successfully he feeds, walks, or emotionally bonds with the pet, the more confident he’ll feel.” In fact, studies conducted by the Waltham Centre have shown that children with pets have higher levels of self-esteem than those without pets.
I hope more teachers go out on a limb and utilize this new and innovative approach to learning. I would love to hear your feedback. ❤️🐾