The General Teaching Council for Scotland

Dogs in the classroom

Hannah Fell investigates the calming effects of a therapy pet programme

Hannah Fell, Primary Teacher, Fife

Research question

Can therapy pets support the development of self-regulation?

Rationale

Current research highlights the benefits that therapy animals have on children’s health and wellbeing (Anderson and Olson, 2015; Carlyle, 2019; Jalongo et al., 2004).

As a classroom practitioner, I work to support learners who have experienced trauma and evidence distressed behaviours in the classroom. Furthermore, a school improvement priority in my setting is the need for a consistent approach to supporting self-regulation.

Considering the current evidence coupled with my professional priorities and self-evaluation, the development of a therapy pet programme can be recognised as appropriate.

Intervention and outcomes


For the past 18 months I have been working in co-operation with local therapy pet handler Mark Fisken and his two Golden Retrievers, Ozzy and Nala.

Initially, Mark and the dogs participated in classroom life for an hour and a half, one day a week. A typical session with the dogs would comprise a literacy or numeracy lesson, and a circle time discussion. During this time, Mark would systematically record instances of distressed behaviours using an observation schedule. I then recorded instances of these behaviours on the other four days of the week, without the therapy dogs.

Over a five-month period, we found that with the therapy dogs present, distressed behaviours were five times less likely to occur. We also gathered qualitative data through semi-structured interviews with the pupils. Consistently discussed was the feeling of “calm” in the classroom when the dogs were present, and the fact that this enabled learners to focus. Parental views of the project were also gathered, and mirrored the children’s experience.

The triangulation of evidence at this stage suggested that therapy pets do support the development of self-regulation, with instances of distressed behaviours less likely in their presence, and children consistently sharing the opinion that the dogs bring a feeling of calm to the classroom.

I was given the opportunity to share my findings with staff and the senior leadership team. As a result of the data gathered, a continued programme of engagement with Mark has been established to further support distressed learners.

Next steps


Motivated by the enquiry process and our initial success, I enrolled in a course entitled Leaders of Learning, led by Fife Council.

The related professional learning is encouraging me to consider how I can share my findings, and instigate change across my school setting in line with Quality Indicator 1.3, Leadership of Change (How Good is Our School? 4th Edition).
Subsequently, Mark and I have developed a structured programme in school which allows the therapy dogs to work with children across a range of stages.

We remain committed to data collection and evaluation, and engage in regular structured discussion with pupils and staff about the project in order to best meet learners’ needs.

References

Anderson, K.L., and Olson, M.R., (2015). The value of a dog in a classroom of children with severe emotional disorders. Anthrozoos: A multidisciplinary journal of the interactions of people and animals(19:1).

Carlyle, D., (2019) Why you’d be barking to dismiss school pets. TES Online.

Jalongo, M.R., Astorino, T., Bomboy, N. (2004) Canine visitors: the influence of therapy dogs on young children’s learning and wellbeing in classrooms and hospitals. Early Childhood Education Journal (32:1).