The therapeutic benefits of pets in schools

There is growing awareness of the therapeutic benefits of animals in schools and particularly within alternative provision where children need a wider curriculum, a reason to come to school sometimes, and it’s often animals that can provide this.

Animals have long been a source of comfort and companionship to us as humans, but the therapeutic benefits are only in more recent times beginning to be documented and really promoted in clinical and educational settings. The work of Boris Levinson, a child psychotherapist in 1962 featured how animal therapy could be integrated with a dog as a ‘co-therapist’ working with children that were withdrawn and uncommunicative who began to ‘interact positively’ with the dog. There have been recent studies in prisons in the UK and the US on bringing cats and dogs in as a therapeutic approach and the results have shown huge benefits.

A recent study in UK prisons ‘Restoring something lost’- Graham Durcan (Centre for mental health 2019) highlighted the benefit of therapy dogs.

“Therapy dogs help prisoners to restore their mental health and reduce the risk of serious self-harm.” The impact of the dogs was shown to be powerful in having: “a calming influence on prisoners, helped coping skills and strategies and provided a safe space for them to explore ways of expressing their emotions.”

In our schools we have growing numbers of children surviving through adversity and whose mental health needs are on the increase and we need to look at life enriching ways to support young people and to broaden the therapeutic experience in schools. It can be argued that animals in schools is something that all children would benefit from, not just those in specialist provision, but all children in mainstream as well as specialist provision as a means to promote and enhance wellbeing, to lower levels of stress in the learning environment and to offer the huge benefits that animals bring. Of course, there needs to be strategic thinking and a commitment to bring this into educational settings and some children may have allergies or fear around animals so careful consideration and planning is needed, but the benefits are great where they are part of the daily life of the school.

So, let’s look in a bit more detail at some of the benefits of animals and pets in schools and what they bring:

  • A sense of belonging and connection – they enable children to feel a source of companionship and to feel loved and cared about. Children that may be struggling with friendships have a faithful friend in a school pet who is eager to play or listen.

  • A positive sense of self and self-esteem – animals give love and connection without expectation and give that sense of ‘being loveable and worthwhile’ which for some children can be transformational in how they begin to feel valued and noticed and cared about.

  • Trust – for some children there have been experiences in their life that have caused them to mistrust the adults around them. They are blocked and in defence, unable to take the risk of trusting another in case they are let down again. It can be animals who can allow a child to reconnect, begin to accept care, and can allow a child to feel safe enough to form a relationship that is reciprocal and mutual.

  • Eye contact – through eye contact we connect with another, but for many children, eye contact can be threatening or frightening. Eye contact with an animal that looks without judgement, without questioning or demanding answers to questions, but with unconditional love and seeking you for connection, can change the experience of being able to feel loveable, to feel able to connect, and to trust another. For some children, animals are much safer than humans. They can be the gateway to enabling relationships with others to form in time.

  • Fun, laughter, and playfulness – animals and pets often do funny things which allow us to smile, laugh, and release the positive chemicals of oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine which are ‘feel good’ wellbeing chemicals that we naturally can have access to. This allows us to feel lighter and more carefree. Where children feel happier, they can learn more.

  • Responsibility and care – learning to look after animals, to feed them, care for them, understand life skills of responsibility and mutual respect.

  • Soothing and regulation – it has been shown in many studies how having animals alleviates stress, lowers blood pressure, and just stroking a cat or a dog brings calm and steadiness. Children who are heightened or stressed can be calmed, soothed, and regulated by taking the school dog for a walk, by stroking a dog or cat, or even a chicken or guinea pig.

  • Being outside with nature – there is growing evidence showing how being outdoors in nature is enriching and healing for all of us and children benefit greatly. Animals enhance the environment and the outdoor experience.

  • Development of empathy – through connection with animals we can feel empathised with, they know and can sense when we feel excited, worried, sad, upset and their mood can match and connect with us as they seek us out and sit alongside us with love and care. This is incredibly powerful for us as humans and for children to begin to feel empathised with so that they can experience how empathy feels and then be able to empathise with others.

  • The exploration of feelings at a safe distance – children can begin to explore their own feelings by projecting their own thoughts and feelings onto animals. They can begin to explore feelings through the animal as the metaphor and this can be powerful in therapeutic work with children offering them the means to create stories, artwork and to have a conversation through the animals as a way of beginning to process their own thoughts and feelings.

Having animals and pets in school provides great opportunities for enhancing wellbeing and creating a culture of wellness within educational settings. We are only just beginning to recognise the powerful role that animals can play and how they can be a source of nurture, fulfillment, and enrichment to children’s education and life experience.

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