There is no psychiatrist in the world like a dog licking your face! (Purkiss, Goodall and Nugent, 2016).
As we think supporting the emotional well-being of people with autistic spectrum conditions (ASC) we must remember that we are all spiritual beings. Other activities, some of which I have discussed on this site, can be useful in helping individuals to develop this aspect of their self through creative expression, experience, exploration of feelings and beliefs. However, there is little that is as important in developing our spiritual sides as expressing our personalities through relationships. Anyone who has ever described themselves as a ‘dog-person’ knows full well that this expression runs freely when interacting with a dog.
Many myths pervade our collective beliefs around autism, one is that people with autism cannot, or do not want to, form relationships. I have not found this to be true for even one of the individuals with ASC I have supported over the past 14 years.
Interaction with animals has been shown to bring a wide range of benefits, including emotional and psychological, to people with ASC, providing a sense of purpose and getting people active outside (Morrison, 2007). Having a pet is positive for mental health, effective in treating depression and anxiety. This could be because people with pets have lower blood pressure in stressful situations (Nepps, Stewart and Bruckno, 2014) and are better able to communicate and interact with others (Rossetti and King, 2010).
People with ASC may form positive relationships with animals, feeling closer to them than other humans in school. Pets could therefore be of great help to learners experiencing anxiety and stress by bringing love and attachment. This could reduce feelings of stress, isolation or loneliness (O’Haire, 2013) and provide opportunities for communication, a person with ASC may have an understanding of animals that other people lack (Nepps et al. 2014), and improve self-esteem through developing responsibility.
Therapy dogs can assist to increase empathy/compassion/self-esteem, support victims of bullying, decrease retaliatory violence, build social networks between learners, reduce stress and anxiety, reduce the impact of traumatic circumstances and contribute to the improvement of reading skills.
School staff may have to overcome certain hurdles in seeking to bring dogs into schools. Therefore it is important that implementing an animal therapy program is well planned. However, the benefits are worth it. The benefits from a well-run dog therapy program in a school far outweigh the initial efforts.
Potential issues could be legal Implications, supervising the dog, allergic reactions, potential harm to students, staff or the animal, maintenance costs and responsibility, hygiene and phobias of some learners.
In planning for these challenges a school ought to consider applying to be supported by a well experienced organization such as Pets as Therapy. Competent dog handlers are trained to watch for potential harm to either a child or their own dog and are primarily responsible to manage the animal. Check that dog handlers representing these organizations carry insurance coverage, meet cleanliness requirements to minimise allergic reactions and have regular veterinarian checks. Ensure that families provide signed consent forms to ensure full awareness of potential problems and to avoid unwanted contact with the dog, the learners are likely to overcome their fear as they gain confidence and respect of the dog. Consider where the dog can be kept safely, establish policies before the program starts, begin small with short visit.
Consider further research; below are some helpful sources of information.
Socio-Emotional Effects of a Dog in the Classroom. Andrea Beetz1, 2 1 University of Erlangen,
Erlangen, Germany. 2University of Rostock, Rostock, Germany.
- Quantifying the Impact of Incorporating Therapy Dogs in an Afterschool Program: A Comparison of
Net Change in Reading Fluency. Jennifer Emmert1, Sue Gonzales2 1The San Francisco SPCA, San Francisco,
CA, USA. firstname.lastname@example.org 2E.R. Taylor Elementary School, San Francisco, CA, USA.
- Studying for Exams Just Got More Relaxing—Animal-Assisted Activities at the University of Connecticut
Library. Reynolds, Jo Ann; Rabschutz, Laurel. College & Undergraduate Libraries. 2011 Oct; 18(4): 359-367.
- Adolescent Social Work Journal. 2011 Jun; 28(3): 243-256.Kids, Dogs, and the Occupation of Literacy.
Scott, Keri; Haseman, Jean; Hammetter, Rona OT Practice, 2005 Feb 21; 10(3): 16-20.
- Active Open Learner Models as Animal Companions: Motivating Children to Learn Through Interacting
with My-Pet and Our-Pet. Chen, Zhi-Hong; Chou, Chih-Yueh; Deng, Yi-Chan; Chan, Tak-Wai. International
Journal of Artificial Intelligence in Education, 2007; 17(2): 145-167