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Can therapy dogs decrease anxiety and stress in students, and improve school attendance? These are just some of the questions Monash University academics Dr Linda Henderson and Dr Christine Grove are trying to answer. Both researchers have trained their own therapy dogs – Daymon the black Labrador and Bronson the Labradoodle.

Henderson says: “Some of the benefits of therapy dogs in a school setting include things like allowing children to increase their interpersonal skills in terms of learning how to interact with a dog and that can therefore translate into how they enact their relationships with their peers. Also it can reduce their anxiety around learning tasks that they may find actually stressful, so it can actually allow them to engage in such things as reading and writing, with the aid of a dog to help reduce their stress levels.” 

“We know anecdotally that there’s an impact on a child’s wellbeing which therefore can then impact on a child’s learning outcomes, but we actually don’t have the solid evidence to show that this is going on when we use a therapy dog. So that is where we need the research at the moment to be really focused on. It’s really critical.”

Grove adds: “We know kids with low confidence, having a dog in the room, just their presence alone can increase engagement and we’ve got a lot of anecdotal evidence around kids more likely coming to school if there’s a dog present. We need to do some more research and identify some of these key ingredients and things that are happening to then say whether there is an impact on learning. And we kind of also want to gather some data around attendance too.”

“It’s important to acknowledge that there will be anxieties around therapy dogs in schools and we don’t want to shut down those conversations, they’re important to have so that we can challenge misconceptions about this space. Because when our dogs come in with us, they’re not running around, jumping on people, they’re not barking. They’re really well behaved and we trust our dogs and know that if we need to leave them in a space for a period of time, they will absolutely still be in that spot when we get back.”

“So there’s a lot of training and evidence base that goes into creating a therapy dog. It doesn’t just happen overnight and it isn’t just like bringing your dog to school – there are objectives behind it, goals behind why that dog might be there and that’s important to consider when we address some of these perceived risks.”

For schools considering a dog therapy program, Henderson says it depends on context and needs. “What in your wellbeing program are you actually wanting to address? So it’s actually about addressing it from that perspective rather than just going, ‘oh it sounds good’.”

This is an edited version of a podcast transcript published by Teacher and has been reproduced with the permission of the Australian Council for Educational Research. To listen to the full podcast, and access the transcript, visit www.teachermagazine.com.au.