Why you’d be barking to dismiss school pets

Class pets are nothing new, but having a canine confidante for children leads to some surprising emotional benefits – and there’s a pile of research to prove it, writes Donna Carlyle
8th March 2019, 12:04am
School Pets Have A Positive Impact On Pupils' Wellbeing, Research Shows

Share

Why you’d be barking to dismiss school pets

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/why-youd-be-barking-dismiss-school-pets

At a primary school in the North East of England, there is one member of the class with whom everybody wants to be friends: Ted.

It’s no surprise that every pupil wants to hang out with him. He is easy to get along with, full of energy and always has a positive attitude. But what is surprising is that Ted is not a child: he’s a dog. And while Ted might not be able to follow along with phonics lessons and times-tables drills, he has an important role to play in the classroom: improving children’s wellbeing.

The research about the benefits of bringing animals into school is now well established. Numerous studies have shown that animals, and dogs in particular, can have a positive effect on children’s stress levels and help to reduce problematic behaviours in the classroom (Hergovich et al, 2002; Jalongo et al, 2004; and Kotrschal and Ortbauer, 2003).

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, young people in the UK are now considered to be less happy than those in many other Western countries. Given current concerns about the rise in mental health issues in children, the wellbeing boost that dogs such as Ted can provide is not something to be ignored.

But how exactly do animals contribute to children’s happiness? One theory is that interacting with one contributes to an important yet often overlooked aspect of children’s development related to the “biophilia hypothesis” (Wilson, 1986). This suggests that humans have an innate need and desire to connect with nature. If, however, children do not have a pet at home, and do not have regular opportunities to go outside and explore natural environments (because they live in an inner city, say), it stands to reason that this need is not being met - and that could be having a detrimental effect on their wellbeing.

That offers one explanation as to why animals might be beneficial in schools, but what is it about dogs that makes them particularly helpful? After all, class pets are nothing new. You can find everything from hamsters and guinea pigs to stick insects to goats in schools across the country.

The difference is that dogs have co-evolved alongside humans like no other animal. Dogs are able to relate to us on an emotional level. Their powerful sense of smell, for instance, allows them to detect and respond to the scent of stress hormone cortisol (see page 22) in our saliva and sweat. This connection has led to dogs being elevated as “companions” and “kin” (Haraway, 2008), and to their substantial role in our cultural and social lives.

What’s more, the benefits of interacting with dogs have been shown to be physiological as well as psychological. Gee et al (2010, 2012) have demonstrated that the mere presence of a dog in the classroom can improve children’s executive function and performance, while studies by Kaminski et al (2002) and Beetz et al (2012) have shown that spending time with a dog is associated with an increase in oxytocin (the “feel-good hormone”) and a reduction in blood pressure among both children and adults.

The evidence is clear for these “chemical” interpretations of why dogs are thought of as “man’s best friend”, but animals like Ted are proving that the benefits of spending time with a dog go even further in the classroom.

I have been conducting a study at Ted’s school to determine the value of his presence. Thus far, the results suggest that spending time with Ted is enhancing children’s self-determination by contributing to the development of qualities associated with self-determination theory, including autonomy, competence and relatedness (Ryan and Deci, 2001).

A brother and friend

I have also observed that the pupils have formed deep, personal connections with Ted; far from viewing him as merely a wellbeing assistant or a learning tool, they refer to him as a “friend” and even as a “brother”.

To explore these connections, I attached GoPro micro cameras to the wrists of pupils in Year 6 and mounted another camera onto Ted’s body harness. The cameras captured numerous photographs and images as the children and dog interacted.

Then, through a series of creative workshops, pupils discussed these images and used them to produce a comic in which Ted metamorphosed into “Tails”, a superhero dog character who helps them out during times of worry or stress. In the comic, Ted is given an animal voice and is attributed an animal mind (Menor-Campos et al, 2018).

So, what did we learn from this process? Creating the comic demonstrated to me how interacting with Ted had activated children’s care-giving and nurturing qualities, while also enhancing their intrinsic motivation, empathy and communication skills.

One of the key findings from close observations and children’s comments was how Ted creates and affords the pupils special spaces in which to come together, both with him and with one another. In these spaces, Ted opens up opportunities for the children to connect socially through both verbal and non-verbal communication, thus enhancing their sense of relatedness, belonging and community. This was seen to overcome cultural and language barriers, especially among those children for whom English was not their first language.

And the study also raised another important point: the value of an animal availing itself to children’s touch.

The cameras captured regular and repeated moments in which Ted would move quietly around the classroom, waiting for subtle cues given by the children (often a hand outstretched) to engage in a mutually beneficial tactile encounter. These can be moments of emotional calming, “refuelling” and re-energising - important states for improved learning and concentration.

Research on touch suggests that physical contact should be given greater prominence and recognition in schools for the important role it plays in enhancing children’s wellbeing (for more on this, see “When ‘moral panic’ becomes your problem”, Tes, 18 January). At a time when teachers are restricted in their use of “safe” touch, dogs could potentially replace this function, thereby providing an essential aspect of relationships that is disappearing and somewhat neglected in schools.

Above all, this study provides evidence for the need to undertake further research into the effects of child-animal interaction - methodological, longitudinal studies that shed more light on this area. We are already seeing a rise in therapeutic education, where therapeutic training programmes are becoming part of children’s curricula in schools. Perhaps with more research that enables children to voice their views, it won’t be long before dogs are as commonplace in the classroom as mindfulness techniques. If that happens, I believe that children’s wellbeing will be all the better for it.

Donna Carlyle is a graduate tutor in the department of social work, education and community wellbeing at Northumbria University

This article originally appeared in the 8 March 2019 issue under the headline “Why our schools are going to the dogs”

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Register for free to read more

You can read two more articles on Tes for free this month if you register using the button below.

Alternatively, you can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters

Already registered? Log in

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Subscribe to read more

You can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters

This is 0 of 1

Now only £1 a month for 3 months

Subscribe for just £1 per month for the next 3 months to get unlimited access to all Tes magazine content. Or register to get 2 articles free per month.

Already registered? Log in

This is 0 of 1

Now only £1 a month for 3 months

Subscribe for just £1 per month for the next 3 months to get unlimited access to all Tes magazine content.