Therapy dogs are a hot topic in the world of education. Many schools have them now and others are curious if it is something which would help their students. When determining what to do, it is important to factor in a lot of things. As with other forms of therapy and services, there are pros and cons to these canine companions. Being able to research both sides and knowing possible outcomes will help with the process.
What is a Therapy Dog?
A therapy dogs’ main goal is to provide psychological support to those in need. They do so with their friendly and relaxed temperament that typically help cheer people up. They are not to be confused with service dogs who are trained to perform specific tasks and interact with only one person. Therapy dogs usually are encouraged to engage with a variety of people in different settings. They can be found visiting schools, nursing homes, hospitals, and other healthcare facilities.
Types of Therapy Dogs
There is no limiting factor on the type of breed or mix a therapy dog can be. They range in all different shapes and sizes, from Poodle to Pitbull. The most important feature these dogs have is their ability to be friendly and around groups of people. Certain types of dogs, like Labrador Retrievers, tend to have the perfect demeanor to become a therapy dog.
Therapy Dog Certification
The American Kennel Club runs the AKC Therapy Dog program that awards official titles to dogs that help improve the lives of others in the form of therapy. They do not give these dogs their official certification, which is run by other qualified organizations that are recognized by the AKC. The title a therapy dog can receive range from novice to distinguished and depend on the number of visits conducted
Therapy Dog Requirements
For a therapy dog to become registered and certified it first must meet a couple of requirements. First, the dog typically needs to be at least one year old, although there are instances of puppies being used as therapy dogs. An accredited organization then needs to test and observe the dog’s manors, demeanor, and handling skills. Lastly, the dog is typically observed by the organization in real-life therapy situations. Most importantly, a therapy dog must be friendly and loving to people.
Cons of Therapy dogs
It’s hard to believe that some people may not support therapy dogs in schools. The fact is that some people not be for them. Why? They have their reasons for their beliefs. One big concern is the cost of the therapy dog. There is training needed for the human who will be with the pup. In addition to this, the dog needs to be fed, housed, and kept healthy. All of this maintenance needs to be considered when taking on this big responsibility.
Dogs are also not for everyone. You need to consider people who have severe canine allergies. How will this be addressed if a child or faculty member is allergic? Another concern is the fear of dogs. Many people are very afraid of dogs. Bringing them into the classroom and school as a whole may be more alarming to them. Rather than assisting them, it will increase their anxiety.
One other item which needs to be considered is a liability. As good mannered and sweet as a therapy dog may be, they are an animal. Something could trigger them and they could snap. How will this be addressed in the case of an incident and does insurance at school allow them?
Benefits of Therapy Dogs
On the flip side, research has shown a lot of positive benefits of using therapy dogs in schools. Therapy dogs help to calm students who are anxious and crying. They increase the overall morale of the building. In addition to this, research shows that they decrease blood pressure, increase dopamine and serotonin levels, assist in social skill-building, and boosting self-confidence in reading.
When a child is upset, the presence of the therapy dog may help them to refocus and settle. If they are really upset, therapists can take them for a walk to talk. This may allow them to return in a calm way to get back to work. In general, therapy dogs have been shown to decrease the feelings of self-doubt that some children may have. They feel more able to do things, are willing to take risks for the dogs, and are genuinely calmer during tests.
Therapy Dogs for Reading and Speech
Kids who are in speech and language sessions may be very self-conscious. They have a more difficult time coming out of their shell and getting comfortable with others. This could be due to a language barrier due to being multilingual. It may also be from slower processing and talking. No matter what the rationale for their speech and language sessions, they need to be able to practice their speaking skills. This is where therapy dogs are perfect. They are great listeners and do not judge a child. They will sit there giving them full attention. The kids don’t have to wait for their turn and can keep on talking.
The canines are also wonderful at listening to a child practicing their reading skills. Older children may be upset with their slow reading fluency. Being able to practice a book, poem, story, or any other reading is great for these children. They don’t have to worry about a peer saying they are too slow. They can go at their own pace and work on reading aloud.
Therapy Dogs for Anxiety and Depression
Some students may have a difficult time with being in school. Therapy dogs are a nice resource to calm children and welcome them. The canines are trained to sense stress. When they do, they can go over to a child in need and simply be there for them. Many kids will calm down, pet the dog, and be able to settle into their day. This is a safe way for many children to be greeted and ease into the school day which may otherwise be filled with anxiety.
In addition to this, therapy dogs may also be present in calming rooms which are filled with items for kids who need to leave the classroom environment. The room is usually filled with soft lights, calming sounds, and spaces where they can decompress. The canines are another resource in the room which will provide a calming effect for students. They may sit with them and provide additional comfort and soothing support who will listen to them while unwinding.
Therapy Dogs for Special Education
The use of therapy dogs in schools is increasing throughout the country. Not only are districts and schools coordinating to add a therapy dog, but there are also programs in some communities that work with the schools to promote the use with special needs children. The benefits in some areas are opening eyes to more specific ways that therapy dogs can be beneficial for children in speech, occupational therapy, physical therapy, social skill-building, and more.
Special education students at Jamestown High School in Virginia have been working with a therapy dog each week since November 2013. Teachers in the classroom say that Louie has brought something new to their students during this time. With the therapy dog’s assistance, these high school students have worked on exercises, fine motor work, speaking, and counseling.
Students in this class practice their literacy skills by reading aloud to Louie, who never judges them. They are also able to learn responsibilities and help with the therapy dog. Children that had been afraid of dogs are no longer anxious, and hyperactive students have calmed with their furry friend. The dog’s presence has helped to bring out the best in students who are more comfortable working on skills when he is in the classroom.
Therapy Dogs for Stress
Now there are even more specialized therapy dogs that can smell stress. These canines can sniff out the subtle scent of the stress hormone cortisol on a person’s breath. In some elementary schools, these service dogs greet children each morning. When they walk over to say hello to a child entering the classroom, they sniff their breath for a hint of cortisol. If they smell some, they are trained to do a move that will let their trainer know to follow up with the child. When they see the dog lean back and stare at the student, they are aware that cortisol is present on the child’s breath.
The Calais School is trying something new with therapy dogs. They have added two stress smelling therapy dogs and teachers to their building. The pre-K to 12-plus special education building has a large number of children on the autism spectrum. In addition to this, other kids are dealing with anxiety, emotional troubles, and mood disorders. The teachers at their school work with the service dogs that are certified through Natural Canine Behavior Rehabilitation.
If one of the dogs senses the cortisol, the teacher will approach the student to follow up. They may say that the dog told them that they were stressed. The kids then get the extra attention they need to get off to a better start in the day. In addition to this, the dogs are therapeutic as well. They calm the children down, and many will talk through what is bothering them.
While therapy dogs might not be the best solution for every school, it is clear that there are a variety of different situations in which a therapy dog can be extremely useful and beneficial. For example, A therapy dog in San Diego recently went above and beyond with helping students there. The dog refused to drink water at the school. The teacher in that room looked closer and noticed something wasn’t right. The water was later tested and had a high lead content. With the success of programs like these, other schools may start to look at the benefits of therapy dogs.