Visitors to the Y.A.L.E. Cherry Hill Campus are often met with an unexpected greeting: a wagging tail. Both the Upper and Lower school buildings are currently home to five canines currently in training to become certified therapy dogs, participants in what is becoming known as Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT). The animals are popular with both students and staff and are brought to various classrooms by their owner/handlers, where students interact with and help care for the dogs throughout the school-day.
These therapy-dogs-in-training and their handlers meet with certified dog trainer Carl Johnston on a weekly basis in order to achieve the requirements set out by the American Kennel Club for both the Canine Good Citizen Program and the Therapy Dogs International testing. At Cherry Hill, there are two golden retrievers: Amber, owned by PE teacher Debbie Snyder, and Sedona, owned by industrial arts teacher Scott Reader. There are also three border collies: Stella, owned by teacher Tiffany DiFelice; and Zoey, owned by clinical counselor Karen Huber. Although the owners assume responsibility for training and health maintenance, these canine celebrities spend most of their time in the classrooms interacting with students and staff.
According to therapy dog researcher Dr. Tiffani Morgan (2009), Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) involves a goal-directed intervention in which an animal is an integral part of the treatment process. Although horses, cats, and other animals have been utilized in AAT, the predominance of the research on the usefulness of AAT has focused on dogs as therapists (VanFleet, 2008). In addition to applications of AAT with the elderly, disabled, and other adult populations (e.g. chronic psychiatric patients), many outcome studies have focused on the benefits of AAT with children and adolescents with a range of developmental, educational, social, and emotional needs. These studies have included work in pediatric hospitals and outpatient clinics as well as in classrooms.
Dr. Mary Jalongo has noted: “Trained therapy dogs are becoming an increasingly common sight in many educational and health care settings” (Jalongo, Astorino & Bomboy, 2004). Although this practice was not as widely used some years ago, there is a considerable history of effective, structured use of therapy dogs for emotionally and educationally challenged children (e.g. Weigel & Straumfjord, 1970; Slovenko, 1983; Gonski, 1985).
The most commonly reported benefit of canine AAT with children has been the alleviation of anxiety symptoms, including physiological arousal and stress associated with being in a classroom, clinic, or other institutional setting (Morgan, 2009; Somerville, et al, 2008; Athy, 2006; & Dhooper, 2004). Just the presence of a dog in these settings has been shown to significantly reduce physical and other anxiety symptoms and increase the likelihood of active participation in therapy. Other studies have shown beneficial effects of trained therapy dogs as an adjunct to substance abuse treatment (Phillips, 2005), the treatment of mental illnesses including schizophrenia (Villalta-Gil, et al, 2009; Nathans-Barel, et al, 2005) and dissociative disorders (Cleveland, 1995), and improving adaptive functioning (Camp, 2001). According to occupational therapist Mary Camp, service dogs are used to enhance independence in occupational performance areas and contribute to improvements in psychosocial functioning.
Therapy dogs have also been helping individuals overcome a fear of dogs (cyanophobia), which can be a significantly disabling condition, leading to social and physical isolation and many stressful moments. The use of trained dogs has been especially important in working with individuals with special needs who have a fear of dogs (Erfanian & Miltonberger, 1990; Freeman, 1997; Lindsay, et al, 1988; Newman & Adams, 2004); or for children whose fear of dogs is so severe that it has led to significant restrictions in daily activities (Glasscock & MacLean, 1990; MacDonald, 1975).
In addition to helping with social and emotional issues, there has been an interest in canine AAT as applied to educational performance (Limond, Bradshaw & Cormack, 1997). Recent studies have shown improvements in academic functioning ranging from reading fluency and comprehension (Paradise, 2007), to speed and accuracy of motor skills (Gee, Harris & Johnson, 2007). Dr. Julie Paradise, who did her dissertation on the use of therapy dogs in the classroom, concluded that students assigned to registered therapy dogs demonstrated more reading growth than their peers, had a more positive attitude toward schoolwork, were more willing to participate in classroom activities, were more successful with higher level thinking skills, and were more self-confident.
Perhaps of greatest relevance to the dog therapy program at Y.A.L.E., recent studies have shown that dogs can be used to enhance social interaction and social communication in the classrooms of children with developmental disabilities and autism. Esteves and Stokes (2008) used trained therapy dogs in the classroom as teaching assistants and therapeutic adjuncts and found an increase in overall positive initiated behaviors (verbal and non-verbal), a decrease in negative behaviors, and positive generalization of improved social responsiveness. Dr. Anke Prothmann and colleagues (2009) also found improvements in social responsiveness specifically related to the use of trained therapy dogs with children with autism: “We suggest that animals, specifically dogs, communicate their intentions in a way more readily understandable to people with autism.”
Meanwhile, Amber, Sedona, Stella, and Zoey are already providing a positive presence on campus. Many staff and students enjoy having the animals in the classroom, and some students are actively earning points towards spending time with one of the dogs as a reward for classroom compliance. The dogs are also used to increase outdoor physical activity for the students. Students who would otherwise much prefer to choose a sedentary activity during recess are now happily outside, walking the dogs, throwing a ball or a Frizbee, and getting some much-needed physical stimulation and fresh air.
According to the high school students who attend Jennifer Hicks’s classroom in the Upper Campus where they are visited by the dogs on a regular basis, their classroom experience has been enriched. Ms. Hicks, herself a dog owner and admitted dog lover, commented, “It’s been a great incentive for kids who are working towards independence level.”
Her students were interviewed and shared their feelings about the dogs in their classroom:
Dean: [The dogs are] a lot of entertainment, enjoyment, people seem happier and in good spirits, lightened the mood, helps when students are stressed.
David: The dogs are awesome, they play a lot and I like their tricks. They are fun to play with. They give me a reason to be active inside. I usually get bored easily.
TJ: Makes me calmer when I pet them. I’m not allowed to have a pet at home, so it makes me feel like I have a pet at school.
Alex: The dogs help relieve some students’ stress.
Akyli: I used to be afraid of dogs, now I’m not. I feel I have a better understanding of dogs now.
The dog programming at the Y.A.L.E. Cherry Hill Campus is undoubtedly here to stay, and may be expanding soon. Sedona’s owner, Scott Reader, is planning to take Sedona to a breeder soon and is hoping to have a litter of puppies to share with his family and students. Good luck, Scott and Sedona, and good luck to all of our dogs in their pursuit of excellence, both in and out of the classroom.
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