Therapy Dogs in the Classroom

By Cara Zelas

Teachers and parents alike have both seen their young students in stressful situations. Whether the student is embarrassed to read out loud, anxious while taking a test, or upset about something that happened outside of school, all students end up in stressful spots sometimes. Our task as educators and as parents is to determine how to help our little ones navigate those stressful times. One way we can help reduce those stressors in a classroom setting is through the use of therapy dogs.

What’s the research behind this?
Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) has been a practice for several decades now. Research from the 1960s discovered that children who were upset or withdrawn would interact with a dog even if they wouldn’t interact with an adult. Therapists who use dogs in counseling sessions have found that their dogs are able to reduce stress and anxiety for their participants. More recently, AAT has been incorporated into classroom settings. Research has shown that having a dog in the classroom helps students improve their ability to act humanely and compassionately (Chandler, 2001).

Studies have proven that being in the presence of a dog can lower heart rate and blood pressure. Studies have also concluded that being with a dog reduces stress more than being with a caring adult or friend (Jalongo, 2004).

Many programs exist to use dogs to help struggling readers. The most prominent program, Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.) has plenty of research to back up its program. The R.E.A.D program involves having students read to dogs. One study compared a group of students in grades 2-4 who participated in the R.E.A.D. program to a control group that did not. At the end of the study, the R.E.A.D. program students had higher scores and higher self-confidence than those in the control group (Shaw, 2013).

Learning Benefits in the Classroom
Any dog owner could tell you about the impact their dog has had on their life. Now, man’s best friend has been branching out into the classroom to assist teachers. Having a therapy dog in the classroom has many benefits:

  • Improved overall academic performance: Dogs are fun! Having a therapy dog can simply be a motivator for reluctant students to participate, and a student who participates is going to perform better than one who doesn’t. The dog can be a reward for completed work, a reading buddy, and even the topic of a writing assignment.
  • Increased reading level: Reading to dogs is shown to build confidence in struggling readers. The research also shows that reading to a non-judgmental dog can increase fluency and comprehension. Students who might be reluctant to read in front of a peer or a teacher can practice their skills by reading to the classroom therapy dog.
  • Better student engagement: Some students aren’t engaged in the regular classroom routine for a variety of reasons- maybe they are shy, have a learning disability, or are afraid of bullying. A therapy dog can help pull these students, who would normally be withdrawn, into the classroom environment.
  • Stronger ability for students to express emotions: Sometimes it’s hard for younger students to express the strong emotions they feel. Whether its anger, sadness, or depression, it can be easier to explain those feelings to a dog than to an adult. This can help the educators get to the root of student behavior and potentially combat against bullying.
  • Teaches empathy: Students who get to help take care of a therapy dog are able to build better connections and learn empathy.

How to get started
If you are wanting to introduce a therapy dog into your own classroom, and you have administrative approval, there are a few steps you’ll want to take to get started.

  1. Find a reputable organization to partner with. Pet Partners is one of the most widely used organizations for providing therapy dogs. You can check out their website here. If you are specifically interested in the R.E.A.D. program, you can find more information on their website to get started.
  2. Get a site assessment. Most organizations will want to conduct a survey or visit to make sure that your school is a good fit for their program. All staff involved need to be aware of safety precautions and procedures.
  3. Explain the process to your students. Bringing a dog into the classroom is exciting. So beforehand it is important to lay some ground rules with your students on how they should act around the dog. Speak with the handler first to see how he or she wants students to approach the dog and any other student/dog interaction guidelines they might have.

The benefits of having a dog in the classroom are many! As educators and parents we need to do all we can to help our students navigate school, be successful, and develop kindness. Therapy dogs are a fun way to do all those things!

Chandler, C. (2001). Animal-assisted therapy in counseling and school settings. ERIC Digest.
Jalongo, M.R., Astorino, T., & Bomboy, N. (2004). Canine visitors: the influence of therapy dogs on young children’s learning and well-being in classrooms and hospitals. Early childhood education journal, 32(1), 9-16.
Shaw, D.M. (2013). Man’s best friend as a reading facilitator. The reading teacher, 66(5), 365-371. DOI:10.1002/TRTR.1136