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A pilot study: What is the impact of daily sessions with a therapy dog on the attitudes of anxious pupils towards school?

Written by: Alice Kirkpatrick
Photo by Joe Caione on Unsplash|Pupil attitude to self and school||Comparison of pupil attitudes before and after intervention
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4 min read

Rationale

In May 2018, a cockapoo puppy, aged nine weeks old, was introduced to Our Lady’s Catholic High School, Lancashire. The dog was undergoing training to become a school therapy dog. To date, feedback suggests that the dog is having a positive impact on both pupils and staff members, but no quantitative data has been produced thus far. The purpose of this project is to investigate whether the school therapy dog is having a measurable positive impact on pupils.

Summary of the literature

There is research that supports the idea that a therapy dog can reduce anxiety. Several studies have concluded that therapy dogs are helpful for relaxation and destressing. Baun et al. (1991), Huss (2012), Shiloh et al. (2003) and Demello (1999) have all found that ‘cardiovascular measures reduced significantly more during conditions where a pet was present’.

Andrea Beetz (2013) investigated the impact of a classroom therapy dog on children’s socio-emotional experience, including depression and emotion regulation. He found, through collecting questionnaire data before and after the intervention, that there was a significant positive change regarding attitude towards school for the intervention class, compared with the control class.

A pilot evaluation study (Dell et al., 2015) by the St John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program found that a therapy dog offers love and support to students, with positive implications for mental health support. Data-collection in this study used mixed methods – obtaining results using a five-point Likert scale and qualitative questions.

Methods

Seven children from Year 7 were chosen for the intervention. All the children suffer with low self-esteem and anxiety regarding school and have spent significant amounts of free time in Learning Support. A two-week intervention was carried out before school. This was named ‘Group Work with Arlo’. The activities included: learning about how Arlo communicates with others, obedience training, teaching ‘tricks’ and grooming.

In a similar vein to the St John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program (Dell et al., 2015), various data was collected to assess the impact of the intervention. Pupil attitudes to self and school (PASS) evaluation was done prior to and after the intervention. Attendance data was collected for the two weeks prior to the intervention, the two-week period of the intervention and the two-week period after the intervention. A bespoke questionnaire for pupils was produced, which asked how they felt about coming to school, how they felt about making new friends and their attitudes towards group work and independent work. Parents/carers also completed a questionnaire.

Results

PASS evaluation (see Figure 1)
  • positive attitudes to teachers = 17.7 percentage point improvement
  • positive feelings about school = 10.4 percentage point improvement
  • no significant impact on the children’s self-regard as a learner, preparedness for learning, general work ethic or response to curriculum demands.

Pupil attitude to self and school

Figure 1: Results from PASS evaluation

Attendance (see Figure 2)
  • no significant impact; however, over 50 per cent of the children already had 100 per cent attendance.

Graph of pupil attendance

Figure 2: Effect of intervention on attendance

Pupil questionnaire (see Figure 3)
  • eighty-six percentage point increase in children who would get involved in group activities
  • seventy-one percentage point increase in children who said they enjoyed working as part of a group.

Comparison of pupil attitudes before and after intervention

Figure 3: Comparison of pupil attitudes before and after intervention

Conclusions

The results of this pilot study suggest that daily sessions with a therapy dog, carried out for 20 minutes prior to the school day for two weeks, have a positive impact on the attitudes of anxious pupils towards school. These included, but were not limited to, improved attitudes towards teachers, improved confidence in learning, improved attitudes to attendance, increased confidence talking to new friends and a more positive outlook towards making new friends.

Three key conclusions can be drawn from this pilot study:

  • The children had a more positive attitude towards school and were less anxious about coming to school after the intervention with Arlo
  • The children were more willing to work as part of a group and enjoyed working as part of a group
  • The children had fewer anxieties about talking to new people and making new friends.

A further tentative conclusion that has been drawn is that a therapy dog would have a positive impact on pupils with specific educational needs (SEND)/anxiety issues.

Recommendations

A key shortfall of this project was the sample size. As the sample size was only seven pupils, all in Year 7, the results cannot be generalised for all populations of children or other year groups. Two recommendations for improvement in the future would be to increase the sample size and to include pupils from a range of year groups. Furthermore, if this project were to be repeated, children with poor attendance could be selected instead. This would allow for changes in attendance to be measured.

Another problem was the short period of time during which the intervention occurred. A two-week intervention window will have limited the possible impact that Arlo could have made compared with a longer period, plus it reduces the reliability and validity of the results. A recommendation for improvement would be to extend the intervention time-frame, for example to a 12-week term, before reassessing the attitudes of the pupils.

References

Baun M, Oetting K and Bergstrom N (1991) Health benefits of companion animals in relation to the physiologic indices of relaxation. Holistic Nursing Practice 5(2): 16–23.

Beetz A (2013) Socio-emotional correlates of a schooldog-teacher-team in the classroom. Frontiers in Psychology 4: 886.

Dell CA, Chalmers D, Gillett J et al. (2015) PAWSing student stress: A pilot evaluation study of the St John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program on three university campuses in Canada. Canadian Journal of Couselling and Psychotherapy 49(4): 332–359.

Demello L (1999) The effect of the presence of a companion-animal on physiological changes following the termination of cognitive stressors. Psychology & Health 14(5): 859–868.

Huss R (2012) Animal-assisted activity programs. Missouri Law Review 77(2).

Shiloh S, Sorek G and Terkel J (2003) Reduction of state-anxiety by petting animals in a controlled laboratory experiment. Anxiety, Stress & Coping 16(4): 387–395.

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