“He bites, right?”
That was one of the first questions I was asked by a student as she eagerly, but apprehensively, approached my dog, Baxter, and me at school. Her question, which reflected her prior negative interactions with animals in her community, and the fact that she was still drawn toward my dog, embodied the sometimes complicated relationship between humans and animals and highlighted my rationale for establishing a sustainable, animal-assisted therapy (AAT) and activities (AAA) program at our school. Prior to that interaction, I felt strongly about incorporating animal therapy into the clinical practices at Pineland Learning Center; afterward I was entirely convinced that creating a safe, therapeutic situation that would allow our students to connect with animals was critical.
Pineland Learning Center is a private school for students ages 5-21 with behavioral, developmental, and learning disabilities; it is located in the heart of southern New Jersey. Most of our students have experienced limited success in other school settings and live in homes and communities marked by limited resources and opportunities. Often, their negative behaviors hindered their ability to access the full benefit of school in traditional, less-restrictive academic settings which caused their school district to seek an outside placement better suited to their needs. At PLC, we educate students within a safe, structured, supportive, and well-supervised environment designed to anticipate, prevent, and respond to such challenges.
Given the unique characteristics of our students, the mission of our school, and the flexibility of our academic environment, AAT seemed like a great fit for us. From the outset there was a great deal of enthusiasm and excitement about having therapy dogs on campus, but we knew we had to temper those emotions, and approach the project in a systematic manner in order to create a manageable, sustainable program. An overview of our journey, complete with benefits and barriers, is outlined below. The first step in the process was reviewing available literature on the topic to determine whether AAT was a suitable fit for our school.
Dogs and Humans: An Enduring Bond
Humans and animals have co-existed, sometimes as friends and sometimes as foes, throughout human history. Over an impressive span of time, humans and dogs have evolved together from parallel hunters to hunting partners to companions and eventually to best friends. A recent discovery suggests that the first domesticated dogs may have emerged as early as 27,000 to 40,000 years ago. While researchers are still debating the particulars, including whether we domesticated dogs or they domesticated us, it is clear that dogs and humans share a deep history that has impacted both species. Any partnership that has endured the centuries has borne witness to dramatic societal changes, which have impacted priorities and needs. As human beings have become more intellectually and emotionally complex, so too have our dogs. Our ancient hunting companions can now not only recognize human faces but they may even be able to discriminate between happy and angry facial expressions, making them more connected to their owners and other people than ever before.
So it seems that dogs and humans are designed to be companions, which is likely why so many people enjoy socializing with and owning dogs and consider them to be members of their family.
The myriad of physiological and psychological benefits associated with the supportive, non-judgmental companionship provided by dogs has been validated by recent research. Dogs seem to have a “de-arousing effect” on people which is linked to lower blood pressure, reduced feelings of stress and anxiety, pain reduction, and even increased longevity.
Animal-Assisted Therapy: Definition and Benefits
Given our long history as companions, in combination with their acuity for perceiving human emotion, incorporating dogs into therapy seems like the logical next step in the evolution of our dynamic partnership. The notion of formally using dogs as “co-therapists” was first documented in a 1962 article in the journal, Mental Hygiene, by a child psychologist, Dr. Boris Levinson. Reportedly, Dr. Levinson brought his dog, Jingles, to a session with a non-communicative child and when he briefly left the two alone in his office; he overheard the child speaking to the dog. Dr. Levinson concluded that a dog could be extremely helpful as a co-therapist when working with clients, especially those who are withdrawn, non-communicative or have symptoms that are unresponsive to other techniques.
Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) occurs when an animal is incorporated into therapy sessions facilitated by a trained mental health professional in order to help a client achieve specific therapeutic goals. Animal-assisted activities (AAA), such as reading to dogs, are typically overseen by individuals who are not trained therapists. AAA may include general academic or recreational goals, but the practice is not part of a formal therapeutic treatment plan. Both AAT and AAA can involve any animal, but typically dogs and horses are used. It is theorized that the presence of animals during therapy fosters trust and increases client motivation and participation in therapy, which helps the client and therapist to build the therapeutic bond necessary to achieve goals.
AAT is considered to be a “promising and complementary practice” that is understudied. Although limited formal studies have been conducted, existing research has found a number of benefits associated with AAT including:
- increased participation in and disclosure during therapy;
- increased self-esteem;
- anxiety reduction;
- enhanced mood;
- reductions in ADHD symptoms;
- enhanced socialization skills in individuals with autism;
- reduced perception of pain; and
- reduced PTSD symptoms.
In addition, animal-assisted activities, such as reading to dogs, has been shown to improve children’s motivation to read and their reading fluency. Further study is warranted to more fully explore the benefits associated with incorporating animals into therapeutic and academic practices.
PLC Program History & Development
In 2012, I became director of clinical services at Pineland Learning Center. Before my arrival, a consultant with two therapy dogs visited the school regularly. Unfortunately, she had recently retired and the therapy dog “program” left with her. My goal was to improve upon and expand the previous program by creating something sustainable that would not be dependent upon one individual dog-handler team. Further, the new program would be more organized and consistent and utilize regular data collection to monitor student progress and program impact.
Program Development & Implementation
While I felt strongly about re-establishing the use of AAT on campus, I had to establish a sound rationale for AAT rooted in genuine student need, empirical evidence, and the interest and support of key stakeholders. So I began with a literature review and an informal needs assessment. First, I reviewed information about the strengths and needs of our students and found that our student population was presenting with an increasingly complex array of difficulties that required new and creative intervention techniques. While historically, PLC had served students with behavioral issues, recently (in response to community needs), the students and the school’s practices had evolved. Specifically, within the past few years, PLC enrolled a number of students with behavioral, emotional, and developmental difficulties including significant mental health issues and autism (both low- and high-functioning).
After establishing a theoretical rationale for such services, I interviewed key stakeholders including administrators, staff, teachers, students, and parents to determine their level of interest in an AAT program and found the response to be overwhelming positive. I also consulted the directors and coordinators of other animal-assisted therapy programs in the area. After examining current student needs, school and community interest, and current clinical and academic practices, it was clear to me that our students needed access to an array of evidence-based interventions and complementary practices and that they, along with staff, would likely benefit from animal-assisted therapy and activities.
After gathering this information, several steps were needed to establish the program.
Program Proposal Based
on the literature review, consultation with area experts, and anecdotal feedback from stakeholders, I created an overview of the program vision and a plan for implementation which I shared with other administrators to garner feedback and support. The proposed program quickly received support and the process moved forward.
Therapy Team Recruitment
Potential teams were identified by surveying staff to find dog owners with an interest in becoming a team. Teams were screened to ensure their temperament was suitable for AAT. Staff members from a variety of positions were selected including two school administrators, a school psychologist, a social worker, a teacher, and an administrative support staff member.
Training and Certification
Organizations that certify therapy dogs were researched; the Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs, Inc. was selected as the organization that our teams would work with. An experienced trainer who was familiar with preparing teams for AAT certification provided an eight week, on-campus training program for the six teams. Training was funded by PLC, and all took the AKC Good Canine Citizen and Bright and Beautiful therapy dog tests.
After the teams completed training and testing, steps were taken to prepare to have dogs on campus, including: creating a referral process; scheduling; informing the community and obtaining informed consent; reviewing and accommodating medical concerns; and gathering baseline data.
Regular meetings with the therapy dog teams to review the program and to discuss any opportunities for improvement were scheduled.
Procedures to gather stakeholder feedback about the program were developed.
Identification and Mitigation of Risks
The presence of animals in a public setting, no matter how well-trained, always poses a potential risk. In an effort to mitigate such risks several measures were taken to protect all involved parties.
First, available guides and manuals on establishing AAT programs were reviewed and area experts were consulted in order to identify risks and remedies. To increase safety and to ensure that teams were appropriate for school-based work, all handlers and dogs were provided with high-quality training.
Second, information about the presence of dogs on campus was provided to all stakeholders through the distribution of letters and an AAT schedule. Further, signs were posted throughout the building to alert staff, students, and visitors to the presence of therapy dogs. In addition, liability coverage was added to the school’s insurance policy and all handlers were required to sign a waiver acknowledging risk and assuming responsibility for any damage caused by their dog. All caregivers were informed of the program and informed consent was obtained from the caregivers of all students working with dogs. Medical risks were assessed through surveys and a review of school nursing records. Additionally, feedback from staff about their level of comfort with dogs as well as any medical concerns was gathered and measures were taken to address these. Finally, channels for regular communication about the program were established to identify and address concerns.
Impact While anecdotal reports have long heralded the benefits of AAT, limited formal research has been conducted on the practice. Consequently, monitoring growth and improvement was a priority for us. Data on affect (mood) change was gathered through a simple check-in/check-out procedure (students were asked to rate their mood on a scale of 1 to 10 before and after working with a dog). Overall, 73 percent of students reported an increase in positive affect after AAT while the other 27 percent reported their mood stayed the same (the majority of these students were already at a rating of 10); none reported a decline in mood after working with the dogs. Formal data collection is still underway but preliminary results support the anecdotal reports from students, staff, and even school visitors, which indicate that having dogs on campus is beneficial. During interviews students and staff reported that working with the dogs made them feel relaxed, happy, and focused.
Pitfalls and Promises
Overall, the process of establishing AAT at PLC has gone well. However, there have been some challenges and opportunities for growth that created invaluable learning opportunities for all involved.
Time is limited and consistency is critical! Consistency in implementation is essential but this can be difficult given all the other demands placed upon teacher and student time in schools. In order for an AAT/AAA program to be successful it is important to find creative ways to infuse the practice into the school’s existing structure and routine. For example, dogs can visit students during a regularly scheduled counseling session or ELA lesson.
“Can I bring my dog to work too?” will become a similar refrain. This highlights the importance of educating stakeholders about the differences between “working” animals and pets. Ultimately, all dogs in the building are trained to be part of our program and are there to work, not to visit. Helping staff understand the difference between a family dog visiting school and a therapy dog working at school helped to establish boundaries and to reduce hard feelings. In addition, we created opportunities for new teams to participate in the training process and join our team.
You cannot go it alone. Do not make the mistake of creating a program that is overly dependent upon one individual, because if they burn out or leave, the program goes with them. Establishing a team and meeting regularly will help to create and maintain an environment of shared responsibility and program ownership.
Most people will love having animals on campus. Humans and dogs have a special bond, and for most people, seeing a dog in an unexpected place such as a school is a delightful surprise. Of course, there are people that don’t want to be around dogs for personal and/or medical reasons. In my experience, if you are respectful of their needs and include them in planning and troubleshooting, potential issues are easily prevented.
Students, especially difficult ones, will respond to the dogs in ways that you never imagined. You will see different sides of your students and learn things about them you never would have otherwise. Having a well-mannered dog in the room creates the space for more genuine dialogue.
It will be difficult, but it will be worth it. Creating new programs is tough. Creating new programs in the time-limited, high-stakes, testing-focused culture of American schools is even tougher. At times, the scheduling conflicts alone will make you want to concede but you can make it work.
Dogs and humans have a long history of working and living together so inviting them into our schools seems natural. However, having therapy dogs on campus is no easy task and requires a significant amount of ongoing planning, teamwork, and communication. But sometimes it is the simple things that make all that effort seem worthwhile—like watching a student who once believed that all dogs bite happily embrace a dog.