By: Russell Grigg
The COVID-19 pandemic has raised concerns over its impact on children’s emotional well-being and mental health. But researchers are reporting some good news. Pets appear to be acting as a kind of buffer against psychological stress during periods of lockdown. At least these were the findings of a recent survey in England where 90 per cent of 6,000 people surveyed said that their pets reduced feelings of loneliness, kept them fit and active and helped them cope with the lockdown (Ratschen et al., 2020).
These findings do not surprise us. Over recent years we have been researching how trained animals help children and young people’s all-around development in schools and colleges. And we have found through first-hand observations and in speaking to pupils, teachers, principals, parents and academics that there is remarkable agreement over how animals can help.
In this article, we discuss these benefits and offer guidance for those considering introducing animal-assisted interventions into their schools.
The human-dog relationship is a very old one. For example, the ancestry of the Arabian Saluki dates back to ancient Egypt – and the breed’s speed and quiet devotion made it an excellent hunting companion. Today, any visitor to the Arabian Saluki Center in Abu Dhabi will testify to the dogs’ gentle temperament, elegance and intelligence. Like us, however, dogs have different personalities even within the same breed. While Salukis are affectionate towards family, some can be distant towards strangers. And so not all dogs are ideal for use in schools and colleges. They need to be assessed and trained to be around children before the benefits are seen.
The most obvious benefit is in the area of children’s emotional development. Dogs read emotional cues very well – whether we are happy, sad or angry. When the dog responds to gentle touch by wagging its tail or moving closer, the child gets immediate positive reinforcement. Similarly, if a child demonstrates loud or unpredictable behaviour the dog may move away, providing instant feedback. Dogs provide a safe sounding board for the sharing of feelings. This is particularly important for children who have difficulties in communicating their feelings, such as those with autism.
There are also potential gains in language and literacy skills. Studies show that when children read to a trained dog, they become more motivated, develop confidence and fluency, and enjoy the experience of reading. The children grow in self-confidence as they read aloud. They look forward to reading in a relaxed, calming, non-critical environment. The presence of a dog can also encourage children to communicate, perhaps through a conversation about the dog, or by answering or asking simple questions.
In our own observations, we found that very young children would initiate conversation amongst themselves in the presence of a dog, talking about what the dog enjoyed eating (sausages), or discussing whose turn it was to give the dog a treat.
There are social benefits too. There are children who find it difficult to interact with others, perhaps because they feel inferior or are socially anxious, fearful or shy. This is significant because social anxiety, fear or shyness can prevent children from achieving their full potential or enjoying social situations. This may be particularly important to consider when pupils return to school after long periods of absence. Animals can prove to be effective ‘icebreakers’, prompting children to interact, take turns and share. In caring for animals, children learn to act in a caring, gentle and considerate manner.
And finally, there are physical and physiological benefits. Too many children live sedentary lives. The presence of a dog has the potential to increase physical activity in obese children – for example, through slow walking. And studies show that in the act of reading to dogs, stress, blood pressure and anxiety are reduced.
Learners of all ages can benefit from the presence of dogs
It is not only dogs that can support children’s well-being. In the classic story A Kestrel for a Knave, Billy Casper is a working-class boy struggling at school. One day he steals a fledgling kestrel from its nest in the countryside. The bird inspires Billy to learn and read as much as he can about how to care for his kestrel, which symbolises liberation from his dreary life. Here in the Middle East, generations of Bedouin have taught their children values of patience, courage, willpower and companionship in respecting falcons. And in Islam, there are stories such as ‘The Prophet and the Ants’ and ‘The Crying Camel’, which teach children that animals need to be cared for no matter how big or small they may be.
Things to consider
If you are thinking of bringing animals into school, the most important thing is to research and plan carefully. There are organisations that can help schools interested in animal-assisted interventions. For example, the Animal Agency in the UAE offers a reading-to-dogs programme and practical advice on how this can be implemented successfully. See: https://www.readingdogsuae.com/
Animal welfare must be a key priority. All animals have specific physical, social and emotional needs, which must be understood and met. The wellbeing of the animal should be regularly monitored. We must not assume that animals will enjoy coming into school. Even the friendliest family dog may be overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and smells of a busy school environment. We recommend teaching adults and children to understand the way different animals communicate, their individual needs, and to ensure any animal has regular breaks where they can have peace and the chance to rest undisturbed. Adults and children alike need to be taught how to read cues, such as whether a dog is relaxed or stressed. Many dogs do not enjoy direct eye contact or being hugged tightly. But they may communicate this in very subtle ways such as stiffened posture, or a raised paw.
Dogs are unlikely to appeal to all children. In our book, Tails from the Classroom (Crown House, 2020), we describe how some schools and colleges have used rabbits, mice, bearded dragons, gerbils, horses, fish, turtles, cockatoos and even maggots to inspire children’s learning and all-round development. Such animals offer so much to children through and beyond these COVID-19 days.
Dr Russell Grigg is an Education Inspector for the Ministry of Education and works in the School Development and Improvement Unit. He has written widely on education.