Background Research

Can pets play a significant role in improving children’s academic success and their well-being? Studies have found promising beneficial effects, for example, of dogs on humans, but others lack scientific rigour and there is some contradictory evidence (Kazdin, 2010; Herzog, 2011). Despite this, animal-assisted interventions (AAI) are already in use, often unsystematically, in many educational settings world-wide. It is also unclear which mechanisms underlie potential beneficial effects like improvements in mood, behaviour and/or academic abilities. The extent of AAI’s effects is also unclear (see Herzog, 2011, McNicholas et al., 2005). Can we show changes in children’s physiological, motor, psychological, social-emotional and/or cognitive behaviour? If yes, how are these affected and how do they correlate? We also need to ask if child-related variables influence AAI – does it work equally well for all children or are there differences, for example, for children with average versus low socio-economic status (SES), or for children with behavioural/learning disabilities, or for those who already own a dog? Furthermore, for successful and cost-effective implementation of AAI it is vital to know if classroom-based interventions work as well as individual interventions. In sum, there is an urgent need to produce robust, reliable and valid assessments of the potential effects of pets on children’s well-being and academic ability.

Why might dogs have a beneficial effect on humans? From an evolutionary viewpoint, humans’ long joint history with dogs could be seen as enabling adaptation to a mutually beneficial relationship (Serpell, 2010). Theory suggests that humans provide food, shelter and safety for the pet while the pet contributes to the human’s health and well-being and to their feelings of social-emotional support and safety (Collis & McNicholas, 1998). Exploratory work has included research on the role of pets in child development, with both typical and atypical populations, and in various adult populations. Most effective benefits may occur with dogs both own and unknown, over other animals (Friedman & Son, 2009).

In studies of the biological mechanisms underlying human-animal bonding and its effects, physiological indices for affiliative behaviours and arousal have been identified, e.g. lower cortisol and higher oxytocin levels after interacting with a pet as well as lowered blood pressure, reduced skin conductance and lower heart rate (e.g. O’Haire et al. 2015; see also Herzog, 2011). Physiological measures revealed that animal-assisted therapy (AAT) leads to less anxiety in children (Tsai et al., 2010) and reduced stress.

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), ADHD, and children with behaviour problems seem to relax in the presence of a dog (e.g. Beetz et al, 2011; Schuck et al., 2013) and for children with ASD animals may serve as catalysts that facilitate communication and language (e.g. Gabriels et al., 2012, 2015; O’Haire, 2013; Solomon, 2010).

Concerning psychosocial and behavioural factors, children show more empathy after being around a pet and children with pets seem to have more self-esteem than their peers. Pets are also seen as family members and can help children overcome anxiety and isolation (Melson, 2011). It has been suggested that children with behaviour problems and from deprived backgrounds may be taught empathy through education, exposure and direct experience with animals (Jegatheesan, 2012; Schuck et al., 2013).

Academic improvements were found especially in reading with dogs (see LeRoux et al., 2014), but interestingly, cognitive improvements were also found in individual interventions with children when a dog was present during problem-solving tasks (Gee et al., 2010a), instructions were followed better (Gee et al., 2009) and their memory and categorisation abilities were enhanced (Gee et al., 2012a; Gee et al., 2012b; Gee et al., 2010a; Gee et al., 2010b). Children have also been shown to be more attentive and calm in class-room situations when a dog is present (Kotrschal & Ortbauer, 2003), thus providing a more enabling learning environment. Recently, positive effects on students’ emotions and on exam performance have been reported if dogs were present before exam start, thus suggesting that group interventions could be effective, however, conclusive research on the topic is only just starting to appear (e.g. Pendry, 2015.).

However, so far, research is limited concerning the effects of AAI on cognitive skills, like language, categorisation, memory and executive function. Research on typically developing children and those with special needs with differing SES is also sparse (Westgarth et al., 2010). The role of dog ownership and gender is often unclear and there may not be any effects of these factors (e.g. Meints & de Keuster, 2009). Furthermore, it is unclear if individual interventions work better than group interventions.

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