Can dogs reduce stress levels in school children? effects of dog-assisted interventions on salivary cortisol in children with and without special educational needs using randomized controlled trials


Prolonged or excessive stress negatively affects learning, behavior and health across the lifespan. To alleviate adverse effects of stress in school children, stressors should be reduced, and support and effective interventions provided. Animal-assisted interventions (AAI) have shown beneficial effects on health and wellbeing, however, robust knowledge on stress mediation in children is lacking. Despite this, AAIs are increasingly employed in settings world-wide, including schools, to reduce stress and support learning and wellbeing. This study is the first randomized controlled trial to investigate dog-assisted interventions as a mediator of stress in school children with and without special educational needs (SEN) over the school term. Interventions were carried out individually and in small groups twice a week for 20 minutes over the course of 4 weeks. We compared physiological changes in salivary cortisol in a dog intervention group with a relaxation intervention group and a no treatment control group. We compared cortisol level means before and after the 4 weeks of interventions in all children as well as acute cortisol in mainstream school children. Dog interventions lead to significantly lower stress in children with and without special educational needs compared to their peers in relaxation or no treatment control groups. In neurotypical children, those in the dog interventions showed no baseline stress level increases over the school term. In addition, acute cortisol levels evidenced significant stress reduction following the interventions. In contrast, the no treatment control group showed significant rises in baseline cortisol levels from beginning to end of school term. Increases also occurred in the relaxation intervention group. Children with SEN showed significantly decreased cortisol levels after dog group interventions. No changes occurred in the relaxation or no treatment control groups. These findings provide crucial evidence that dog interventions can successfully attenuate stress levels in school children with important implications for AAI implementation, learning and wellbeing.

Can dog-assisted and relaxation interventions boost spatial ability in children with and without special educational needs? A longitudinal, randomized controlled trial


Children’s spatial cognition abilities are a vital part of their learning and cognitive development, and important for their problem-solving capabilities, the development of mathematical skills and progress in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) topics. As many children have difficulties with STEM topic areas, and as these topics have suffered a decline in uptake in students, it is worthwhile to find out how learning and performance can be enhanced at an early age. The current study is the first to investigate if dog-assisted and relaxation interventions can improve spatial abilities in school children. It makes a novel contribution to empirical research by measuring longitudinally if an Animal-Assisted Intervention (AAI) or relaxation intervention can boost children’s development of spatial abilities. Randomized controlled trials were employed over time including dog intervention, relaxation intervention and no treatment control groups. Interventions were carried out over 4 weeks, twice a week for 20 min. Children were tested in mainstream schools (N = 105) and in special educational needs (SEN) schools (N = 64) before and after interventions, after 6 weeks, 6 months and 1 year. To assess intervention type and to provide advice for subsequent best practice recommendations, dog-assisted interventions were run as individual or small group interventions. Overall, children’s spatial abilities improved over the year with highest increases in the first 4 months. In Study 1, typically developing children showed higher scores and more continuous learning overall compared to children with special educational needs. Children in the dog intervention group showed higher spatial ability scores immediately after interventions and after a further 6 weeks (short-term). Children in the relaxation group also showed improved scores short-term after relaxation intervention. In contrast, the no treatment control group did not improve significantly. No long-term effects were observed. Interestingly, no gender differences could be observed in mainstream school children’s spatial skills. In study 2, children in SEN schools saw immediate improvements in spatial abilities after relaxation intervention sessions. No changes were seen after dog interventions or in the no treatment control group. Participants’ pet ownership status did not have an effect in either cohort. These are the first findings showing that AAI and relaxation interventions benefit children’s spatial abilities in varied educational settings. This research represents an original contribution to Developmental Psychology and to the field of Human-Animal Interaction (HAI) and is an important step towards further in-depth investigation of how AAI and relaxation interventions can help children achieve their learning potential, both in mainstream schools and in schools for SEN.

Best Practice Standards in Animal-Assisted Interventions: How the LEAD Risk Assessment Tool Can Help | 2020 | Brelsford, Dimolareva, Gee & Meints

Animal-assisted interventions (AAI) in educational and other settings have steadily increased over the last fifty years and a steep rise in AAI has been observed in many countries and settings in recent years. Surprisingly, while different providers and organisations provide a range of guidelines, no unified, standardised guidelines or risk assessment tools for AAI exist. This means that in practice AAI takes place in an unregulated manner and without a gold standard of best practice. In addition, knowledge of which interventions are effective is still scarce and the mechanisms of successful interventions are not yet fully understood. This is partly due to AAI being a relatively new research field and standards of research and practice have often lacked rigour in the past. Furthermore, knowledge and experience of providers undertaking interventions varies greatly as there is no standardised training either. We address the striking lack of standardised guidelines and procedures. In all AAI, high importance should be placed on safety and welfare of all involved. Children and other AAI participants, staff and animals should be given equal consideration when assessing risks and welfare needs. To ensure safe AAI worldwide, we provide urgently needed guidelines on best practice in relation to risk assessment, safeguarding and animal welfare priorities. The guidelines were developed for a large-scale longitudinal, randomised controlled trial AAI project and are relevant to AAIs within educational and other settings. We also provide the first set of comprehensive risk assessment and animal welfare tools to achieve consistent welfare and safety standards for best practice across educational and other settings around the world.

Brelsford, V. L., Dimolareva, M., Gee, N., & Meints, K. (2020). Best Practice Standards in Animal-Assisted Interventions: How the LEAD Risk Assessment Tool Can Help. Animals, 10(6), 974.
View here

Animals in education settings | 2017 | Meints, Brelsford, Gee & Fine

How Animals Help Students Learn summarizes what we know about the impact of animals in education and synthesizes the thinking of prominent leaders in research and practice. It’s a much-needed resource for mental-health and education professionals interested in incorporating animals in school-based environments, one that evaluates the efficacy of existing programs and helps move the field toward evidence-based practice. Experts from around the world provide concrete examples of how animals have been successfully incorporated into classroom settings to achieve the highest level of benefit while also ensuring the health and welfare of the students and animals involved.

Meints, K., Brelsford, V., Gee, N., & Fine, A. (2017) Animals in education settings. In: How animals help students learn: research and practice for educators and mental health professionals. Routledge, New York, pp. 12-26. ISBN 9781138648647
View here

Companion Animals and Child/Adolescent Development: A Systematic Review of the Evidence | 2017 | Purewal, Christley, Kordas, Joinson, Meints, Gee & Westgarth

Childhood and adolescence are important developmental phases which influence health and well-being across the life span. Social relationships are fundamental to child and adolescent development; yet studies have been limited to children’s relationships with other humans. This paper provides an evidence review for the potential associations between pet ownership and emotional; behavioural; cognitive; educational and social developmental outcomes. As the field is in the early stages; a broad set of inclusion criteria was applied. A systematic search of databases and grey literature sources found twenty-two studies meeting selection criteria. The review found evidence for an association between pet ownership and a wide range of emotional health benefits from childhood pet ownership; particularly for self-esteem and loneliness. The findings regarding childhood anxiety and depression were inconclusive. Studies also showed evidence of an association between pet ownership and educational and cognitive benefits; for example, in perspective-taking abilities and intellectual development. Evidence on behavioural development was unclear due to a lack of high quality research. Studies on pet ownership and social development provided evidence for an association with increased social competence; social networks; social interaction and social play behaviour. Overall, pet ownership and the significance of children’s bonds with companion animals have been underexplored; there is a shortage of high quality and longitudinal studies in all outcomes. Prospective studies that control for a wide range of confounders are required.

Purewal, R., Christley, R., Kordas, K., Joinson, C., Meints, K., Gee, N., & Westgarth, C. (2017). Companion animals and child/adolescent development: a systematic review of the evidence. International journal of environmental research and public health, 14(3), 234.
View here