Why Dogs Helping Kids?

Courtesy of Jay Williams

The relationship between a child and his/her pet has been around for hundreds of years. Potential benefits from a child having a pet are numerous and consist of the following: - a child’s best friend, the role of a sibling, a playmate, a confidant, provides emotional support and love, promotes positive self esteem, teaches responsibility and empathy, brings a sense of identity, allows the child to cope with death and loss and can have a lifelong influence on their later attitudes towards animals.

Sigmund Freud believed that dogs had a ‘special sense’ that allowed them to judge a person’s character accurately. His dog Jo-Fi (a Chow) attended all of his therapy sessions. Freud believed that the presence of his dog had a calming influence on all of his patients, especially children. It was the academic work of Boris Levinson and his dog Jingles in the 1960’s that bought the world evidence that pets were good for children and more importantly that pets could help children. Levinson felt that many children could derive benefit from pet psychology – the withdrawn, the inhibited, the autistic, the obsessive compulsive, the fearful, the submissive, the culturally disadvantaged and the young non-verbal.

In the 1970’s Dr Samuel Corson of Ohio State University had good success with a group of 20 dogs who helped children and other patients at a psychiatric hospital. At the same time Skeezer, a mongrel dog, became America’s first Canine Co-Therapist with children. For seven years Skeezer worked as a member of staff at the Children’s Psychiatric Hospital in Michigan where he helped children who were severely troubled and those who needed a helping hand with their emotions.More recently, American psychologist Dr Stacia Bjarnson discovered that children with social, emotional, behavioural and academic issues tended to open up and talk about their feelings when in the presence of her poodle Noodle, who was a registered therapy dog. Noodle currently works with Dr Bjarnson at the Northwest Village School in Connecticut, a special school for over 200 children. Noodle works with children in both group settings and on an individual basis.

The 1970’s and 1980’s marked a turning point in the growth of animal assisted therapy with children and by the 1990’s thousands of animal-assisted therapy volunteers were working in programmes around the world.

Children who have not had a bond relationship with an animal by the age of eight may find it more difficult to interact with and understand animals at a later stage. Furthermore research suggests that when a child reaches the age of eight patterns of aggression start to become both stable and predictable and unless this aggression is identified and treated, the child may go on to become violent and aggressive as an adult.

'The Link' is a term commonly used in America to explain the connection between animal abuse and violence towards people. If a child abuses an animal they may themselves be victims of abuse in the family home, or witnesses to violence at home and they are then more likely to be aggressive to humans when they are adults. Whilst most children are usually sensitive to the misuse of pets, for some abused and disturbed children, pets represent someone they can gain some power and control over. Hence childhood cruelty to animals could be viewed as an important warning sign and one that should not be ignored.

Humane education is a values education which encourages children to be more kind and respectful towards others. Humane education is also regarded as a long-term measure to prevent cruelty towards both humans and animals. Today such educational programmes are huge in America where they are often taught in Schools by animal welfare organisations, from Project Pooch in Oregon to Project Pal in Wisconsin. Britain has very few of these programs. It is down to the discretion of each and every school in Britain to involve the children in having ‘hands on’ experience with animals, but sadly most schools would rather teach children computers, the use of CD-Roms and how to use the internet.

In the 1990s a research study undertaken in Britain concluded that there is a need in schools to teach children about the positive benefits of dogs. There is no better place to educate our children on how to treat animals than that of the school environment. Animals in schools can encourage children to respect all life, teach responsibility, motivate those children who are often not that attentive, help calm children down and improve academic achievement.

Could it be that teaching respect as part of the school day could make the difference between a violent and peaceful world. Dogs as role models? Why not? Perhaps relating to our best friends as part of the school curriculum can help make the world a safer place for us all to relate to each other (Salotto, 1999). Since 2003 a very small number of state schools across Britain have trained up dogs from puppyhood to live and work in the school environment as classroom assistants.

Dogs Helping Kids believes the time is now right to have dogs helping our children in the school environment and we are working towards the day when every school in Britain has a trained dog as a classroom assistant. Even if one child’s behaviour is changed we will feel that our work has been worthwhile. Dogs in schools should be viewed as a very beneficial educational aid and one that should be embraced.

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