Our Animal Blog

The Benefits of Animal Therapy in Schools

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More than 1/6th of young people are identified as having Special Education Needs (SEN). One in eight children assessed in 2017 were identified with at least one mental disorder.

Educators continue to research new ways of assisting these children and one method that’s piqued the interest of many schools walks on four legs and can be found in the home of 49% of adults in the UK.

Pet therapy, or Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) has been used in schools across the world for a number of reasons. Four-legged friends like cats and dogs or even horses and lizards are said to have a significant effect on the social, physical, emotional and psychological experiences of children with challenging behaviour issues and SEN children.

What is a Therapy Animal?

Therapy animals can come in many shapes and sizes. The most common are therapy dogs or cats and they can be applied in a number of different ways across several industries.

Yeovil District Hospital have their own therapy horse to visit their dementia patients and an increasingly common sight in British schools is the learning support dog – a specially trained therapy pup who listens to children read.

What is Animal Assisted Therapy?

Animal Assisted Therapy is delivered by a professional such as a teacher or psychologist and is a goal-directed intervention. Outcomes are documented, measured and evaluated. AAT accreditation is also necessary to ensure that therapy is undertaken properly. Dog therapy practitioner from PAWS AAT Sarah Gordon believes that the comforting nature of animals enables a trained professional to guide sessions so that opportunities are created for goals to be achieved relating to the child’s social or emotional wellbeing.

Animal Assisted Activities (AAA) like animal workshops provide therapeutic and educational opportunities for children. These don’t need to be undertaken by accredited professionals and are not intended to be observed but are used more for enrichment. Unlike AAT, AAA is not goal-directed so may help children engage with their learning in a more interactive manner but may not have long-term benefits on their social and emotional wellbeing.

"Children have a natural affinity with dogs, their playful nature invites interaction... they are accepted by the dog for who they are and what they can do" - AAT practitioner Sarah Gordon

Pet therapy for behavioural issues

Children with mental disorders such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can often struggle socially and emotionally in ways which disrupt their learning and the learning of the children around them. Therapy animals have been shown to have a positive effect on children with behavioural issues in a number of cases.

Social effects

Children with ODD struggle to follow instructions and interact with adults. This can often make for a very unpleasant classroom environment if not addressed properly. The way puppy therapy can help is through nurturing social bonds between the child and the animal.

Dogs can allow children to interact socially without having to interact directly with an adult. Children also learn responsibility and empathy when interacting with animals as they begin to understand their needs and the care expected of them.

Studies collected by Brelsford et al. have also shown that regular interaction with therapy animals can improve self-confidence and self-control even after therapy sessions are over.

Having animals in school can encourage social bonds between peers when children are allowed to choose a classmate to accompany them during a session. The chosen child will appreciate the opportunity and the child undergoing therapy will be able to extend their social understanding in an environment they feel comfortable in.

Having to share their time with an animal helps with understanding turn taking and fosters empathy which can promote positive behaviour in the classroom and beyond.

Physical effects

Walking a dog can reduce blood pressure and stimulates the body, often helping children’s classroom engagement. Similar to schemes like the Daily Mile which aims to get children running 15 minutes every day, regular physical activity can help to reduce levels of stress and anxiety which greatly exacerbate the issues experienced by children with behavioural disorders.

The simple act of stroking an animal is able to reduce the levels of the stress hormone cortisol and increase levels of oxytocin in children. This minor activity helps children feel more settled, enabling them to engage more in the classroom.

Psychological effects

Getting to spend time with animals in school can be a great reward for children who have improved their behaviour to encourage a continued improvement and to give the child more responsibility for their own behaviours.

Interaction with therapy animals can improve memory and problem solving ability which can in turn improve children’s self confidence when they see their attainment improve.

More than anything, animals can help children to develop coping methods for emotional regulation. When children express negative behaviours animals such as dogs or horses will not interact with them, while positive behaviours are more likely to engage the animals.

"there is actually a psycho-physiological, emotional and physical (component) to interacting with a therapy animal" - Professor Cynthia Chandler

Animal Therapy expert Cynthia Chandler is sure that pets as therapy is a trend that’s here to stay purely based on the oxytocin effect. This hormone is one of the most powerful social hormones we produce and animals have a huge effect on us no matter who we are. Introducing them to the classroom could be the missing link that will improve the social environment and get an ever-increasing number of children with behavioural issues the help they need.

Animal Assisted Therapy for SEN children

Many of the benefits already discussed can also have a positive effect on children with SEN but have specific benefits to certain disorders including autism, chromosome deletion, Down’s syndrome and sensory issues.

Positive social, psychological and physical improvements that come from interacting with animals can really help SEN children engage with their learning and develop an understanding of how to interact with the world.

Social effects

The doctor credited with undertaking the first dog therapy session, Brian Levison, observed that a dog’s presence helped to strengthen a child with autism’s connection with their environment. Research also shows that children with autism can benefit from developing close bonds with animals as this encourages social interaction but can act as an intermediate to help those who are less inclined to socialise with adults or peers.

Reading dogs have also been known to have a positive effect on children who are usually nonverbal, encouraging them to communicate in a calm environment free of judgement or social expectation. Relationships that can take long periods of time to build between adults and nonverbal children can be forged with animals much quicker, enabling the teacher to better understand their learning abilities and how to structure their work.

Dr Helen Lewis, lecturer at University of Wales, Trinity St David (who tweets at @HEL71_ believes that introducing an animal to a group can also help SEN children learn and demonstrate empathy, kindness and respect, as well as encourage turn taking and sharing.

Physical effects

The tactile stimulation from dog or cat therapy can calm children, which can be helpful for autistic children experiencing a meltdown or sensory overload to process their environment or better self-regulate.

The use of reptiles, more common in AAA, can also provide tactile stimulation with different textures than can be provided by a dog or cat.

The brushing of fur can help to improve fine motor skills in children with physical disabilities and is a creative, novel solution to this problem that many children experience.

The presence of therapy cats or dogs has also been proven to reduce blood pressure which can improve heart health. This can be beneficial to children with issues such as Patent Ductus Arteriotus (PDA) where an opening has formed between the two major blood vessels of the heart at birth.

Psychological benefits

Children with SEN benefit from the improvement in self-esteem and responsibility that come from interacting with therapy animals and these can help them engage with their learning on a deeper level.

Parents of SEN children have also noted the improvements that can be made for children with a phobia of dogs which can affect their daily life. By introducing the animal in a controlled environment where the child can see that they will be safe and that their peers are interacting positively, they can then be encouraged to interact with the pet at their own pace without the pressure and stress of unknown circumstances.

"animals of all shapes and sizes can offer companionship and comfort, and encourage non-verbal as well as verbal communication" - Dr Helen Lewis

While the research for the solid scientific benefit of Animal Assisted Therapy remains inconclusive due to differing circumstances and the lack of a universal study framework, the natural positive effects of animals on humans can’t be denied and will certainly continue to bring value to children who need it the most.

Further reading

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Frequently Asked Questions

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As a way for you to understand us some more, here are some of the questions our experts are frequently asked during sessions. We hope you find them as delightful as we do, as well as hope that we have provided the answers you are looking for. If you do have any further questions, do not hesitate to ask us.

Where do you find your animals?

None of our animals have been caught or taken from the wild. All animals used within the company are captive bred, and have always lived their lives as pets. In order to provide such a high quality service, we ensure that all of our animals are tame. This is a security we can not offer if the animals come from the wild. Furthermore, we do believe that if an animal has lived its life in the wild, then who are we to take them from their homes. All of our animals come from either adoption, rehoming or the pet store. Naturally dependant on the animal. For example, majority of our fluffy animals and reptiles are re-homed animals. Some of which are “donated” to us due to customers truly believing in the good that we do, combined with the knowledge that we care for our animals.  Read More

The Pet Guide: Let’s Talk About Rats!

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From my experience with rats there are two quite extreme reactions to them, kind of like marmite. People either love them or hate them. Those who love them find it is normally due to having experience with them as pets. Those who have a dislike for them, base their opinion on those from the wild. Personally I have always wanted rats since I was a little girl. To me they have a lot to offer, just like dogs, however smaller. Rats are quite the intelligent creatures, they offer companionship, love and respect their owners, and can even be trained. I would argue that rats would make a great pet for those who want such qualities, and here’s why… Read More

The Pet Guide: Adopt or Buy

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One of the common questions I get asked in regards to the animals, is about where they initially came from. Were they bought from the pet shop? Were they re-homed/adopted? Or my favourite, did I capture them from the wild myself?

First things first, none of our animals here at Wild Science are actually wild. All of our animals are captive bred. It is our firm belief that animals born in the wild should in fact stay in their natural habitat. As to the remaining two questions. We use a mixture. Mainly our invertebrates come from a pet supplier, as they aren’t particularly popular for re-homing. Then the bigger animals, we try to adopt as and when we can. If it is not viable, then in some instances we do go to independent breeders or pet shops depending on the animal and the availability. Read More

The Pet Guide

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Welcome back! One thing as a pet owner that has occurred to me, is that when it comes to looking into owning a new pet, the whole research side to things can be a tad bit daunting. There are two very drastic sides to the spectrum. On the one side, you have the people who say “yes, you can do that with your pet” and on the other side you have the ones that say “No! Absolutely not you cruel person!”. With so many mixed opinions, it can be difficult to work out if the care of a particular animal will fit in your day to day life, and therefore a difficult decision as to whether or not to get that particular animal.

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My 35 Animals and Me (Part 2)

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The Job

There are three main sessions that I work on. Schools, Care homes and Parties, providing education, therapy and some plain old fashioned fun. The day starts with me choosing the appropriate animals. This does have to take some careful consideration, as although I do try to bring what people want to see, it is mainly about how my animals are doing that day. Let’s take Romeo for example. He is my french lops bunny rabbit, and is very popular with everyone. And why not? He is calm, cheeky and cuddly. Quite the character. However due to his popularity, if I was to bring him with me every time he was requested, majority of the time Romeo would then be working full time. As much as my animals are beneficial for everyone, at Wild Science our priority is first and foremost the animals. If I think they would benefit more from staying at home and relaxing, then I will leave them at home. After all what good are they going to do if I brought them to someone, and they weren’t  their usual happy go lucky selves.

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