At college campuses in the area, a chorus of “awwws!” can be heard as groups of students flow into the rooms where dogs await young people who need help de-stressing before exams. The therapy dogs roll onto their backs for belly rubs, move from person to person seeking more affection, or show off their favorite tricks. Some students collect each dog’s trading card to display above their desks and remember their favorite dogs while they study: the warmth of the dog’s coat, the floppy ears and dog smile, and their friendly Free Hugs sign. Students engage with each other and with the therapy dog handlers, they talk about pets from home that they miss terribly while they are at school, and some of them remember the dogs they saw at previous events.
Studies conducted by The Center for Human-Animal Interaction at VCU have found that while on the surface, these events simply look like something fun for the students, the canine-assisted activities actually have very real benefits. Not only do these interactions reduce students’ perceived stress, but they can also help them cope more constructively with the stresses related to exam time. Other studies have found that participating in these events increases students’ energy, perceived social support, and happiness. First-year college students who participated in canine-assisted interventions reported less homesickness and greater life satisfaction than students who did not interact with dogs.
For younger children, reading programs such as Read to Rover and Paws to R.E.A.D. at area libraries give children an opportunity to practice reading aloud to non-judgmental, comforting, and attentive canine partners. Children’s attitudes about reading improve when they get to practice with a dog, compared to those who do not read to a dog. And here’s more good news: Children feel more engaged with their reading and more motivated to read. When asked to read to a dog – compared to reading to an adult or a peer – children experienced a decrease in heart rate and other symptoms of anxiety. In addition to feeling more motivated to read, confident in their abilities, and engaged, children who participate in these programs improve their reading comprehension as well as their fluency. In fact, these programs have been so successful and are so popular that many libraries and schools are branching out to include registered therapy animals of other species, not just dogs.
When it comes to academic performance, we are just beginning to grasp the benefits of animals for children. In one study, which involved a group of forty-six first-graders, children who had a dog in the classroom were less aggressive, developed more empathy toward animals, and improved field independence or the ability to separate information from the surrounding context.
Dogs can be exceptionally therapeutic for children with attention disorders like ADHD. Children with ADHD who attended therapy sessions with a canine present showed a significant decrease in problematic behaviors over the course of eight weeks, compared to those who attended therapy without a dog present. It is theorized that the presence of animals helps draw an individual’s attention and enhances the ability to focus, which is why learning can be improved after interacting with a dog.
As your children start another school year – whether it’s in a kindergarten classroom or on a college campus – stay alert to opportunities to interact with dogs. For many students, the de-stressing that comes from petting or even being near a dog could be a game changer for performance and mental wellness in general.