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Pets, therapy and schools


On February 20, ‘National Love Your Pet Day’, people were encouraged to consider the many benefits of their pets and treat them to something special.

Studies have shown that sharing your life with a pet has been associated with decreased risk in key health risks and stress levels, brought about by more physical activity (walking a dog for example) and potential social interactivity where pets become part of a community – eg. Walking at the beach.

The power of pets to provide companionship and comfort is not just limited to homes. Given the impact therapy dogs can have on student well-being, schools and universities are increasingly adopting therapy dog programs as an inexpensive way of providing social and emotional support for students.

Research has shown therapy dogs can reduce stress and provide a sense of connection in difficult situations. Therapy dogs help with everything from trauma to reading interventions to a positive school climate, and they provide particular benefits for autistic children.

Therapy dogs provide comfort and support. They are trained to use their social instincts and learned social skills to provide health, social-emotional, and cognitive benefits.

According to a study in the United States, the simple act of petting a dog has the effect of lowering blood pressure and heart rate. Pet therapy also lowers stress hormones, like cortisol, and increases oxytocin.

Therapy dogs not only have a positive effect on emotional well-being, they have an influence on cognitive development. Interacting with therapy dogs improves students’ reading skills, stimulates memory and problem-solving skills, and even optimises executive-functioning skills.

Whilst there are many benefits from therapy dogs, it is understandable that concerns of cleanliness, allergies and students’ fear of dogs be considered but these can be allayed by choosing a proven provider.

Correctly trained therapy dogs will not lick or scratch when working and the providers should bath and groom the dogs before school visits – this lowers the risk of contact with any dander or irritants.

One of the most powerful ways to reshape a fearful behaviour response is by providing a positive peer behavioural model. In other words, watching other children enjoying and safely interacting with a dog may encourage a fearful child to give it a try.

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