Review of the Research: Are Therapy Dogs in Classrooms Beneficial?

AuthorKropp, Jerri J.


Research over the past 30 years indicates that therapy dogs may offer physiological, emotional, social, and physical support for children (Friesen, 2010). The use of therapy dogs with children is successful due to children's natural tendency to open up to animals and the stress moderating effect of the calm and nonjudgmental presence of a therapy dog (Jalongo, Astorino & Bomboy, 2004). There has not only been an increase in the use of therapy dogs in classrooms in recent years, but the number of articles citing empirical research has greatly increased in the last ten years.

Terminology used:

Various terms are used to describe the use of therapy dogs. The preferred terms are: a) AnimalAssisted Activities (AAA) which provide opportunities for motivational, educational, or recreational benefits to enhance quality of life, and are delivered in a variety of settings by volunteers or trained professionals with animals that meet specific criteria; there are no specified treatment goals and the visit content is spontaneous; b) Animal-Assisted Education (AAE), which is a goal-oriented, planned intervention directed by a general education or special education professional, c) Animal-Assisted Intervention (AAI), which are goal oriented interventions which incorporate animals in health, education, and human services for improved health and wellness and/or therapeutic gains, and d) Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT), which is a planned, goal directed therapeutic intervention directed by health and human services providers as part of their profession, in which an animal that meets specific criteria is an integral part of the treatment process. According to Pet Partners, AAI, AAA, AAT and AAE are the preferred terms, and the term "pet therapy" should be avoided because it is inaccurate and misleading (

It is important to note that there are four distinct categories of animals used for various reasons and with various populations. A certified therapy dog provides comfort and affection, and their handlers are volunteers who visit hospitals, schools, nursing homes, hospice, libraries, and other facilities. These therapy animals have no special rights and must have the permission of the facility to visit. There are usually requirements such as grooming, providing veterinarian records, and proof of certification. Assistance animals (also called service dogs) are individually trained (not by the owner) to do work or perform tasks for people with specific disabilities, such as guide dogs for the blind, alerting people who are deaf, calming a person who has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), dogs who provide mobility assistance, or communicate medical alerts for individuals with diabetes or epilepsy, for example. These dogs also greatly enhance the quality of the lives of their owners with a new sense of independence and freedom. Assistance dogs are considered working animals, not pets. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), these dogs are permitted to accompany a person with a disability almost anywhere, including restaurants, businesses, and airplanes. An emotional support dog, or comfort animal, is a pet that provides therapeutic support to a person with an emotional or mental illness and must be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional for a person with these conditions. The prescription must state that the individual has an impairment that substantially limits life activities and is necessary for the person's mental health. According to the ADA, emotional support animals do not have the same rights to public access as service dogs, but may travel with their owners on an airplane and may live with their owner in locations covered by the Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA). Facility dogs are regularly present in a residential or clinical setting. They may live with a handler who is an employee of the facility and come to work each day or may live at the facility full time under the care of a primary handler. Facility dogs receive special training and may be used for AAA, AAE, or AAT. These animals do not have special rights of access in public unless they are accompanying or supporting a person with a disability. Although many different types of animals can be used for therapeutic purposes, in this paper, the authors only included studies that used dogs.

Leading organizations that certify dogs:

Therapy animal teams are certified, which implies that a third party has assessed the handler's mastery of knowledge and skills, and the dog's suitability and temperament to be a therapy animal. There are three leading organizations that certify therapy dogs. Pet Partners (formerly Delta Society) was formed in 1977. Built on the organization's research foundation, programs were focused on providing direct services in local communities. Pet Partners was the first comprehensive, standardized training in animalassisted activities and therapy for volunteers and healthcare professionals. Over 15,000 animal/handler teams across the US are registered with Pet Partners, making approximately three million visits per year (Pet Partners 2017). Therapy Dogs International (TDI) is a volunteer group organized to provide qualified handlers and their therapy dogs for visitations to institutions, facilities, and other places where therapy dogs are needed. Founded in 1976 so that dogs could be tested, certified, and insured as volunteer therapy dogs. TDI is the oldest registry for therapy dogs in the US, with dogs working in the US and Canada and some other countries (Therapy Dogs International 2017). Intermountain Therapy Animals is a non-profit organization bringing animal resources to human needs. The mission statement of the organization is enhancing quality of life through the human-animal bond. They specialize in the areas of physical, occupational, speech, and psychotherapies, as well as special education. They also founded the Reading Education Assistance Dog (R.E.A.D.) program in 1999 to improve children's reading and communication skills by reading to registered therapy dogs and their volunteer handlers who go to schools, libraries, and other settings.


The authors reviewed 30 articles, book chapters, and other sources on the topic of the various uses of dogs in classrooms, published between 2001 and 2017; 25 out of 30 articles (83%) were published in the last ten years. Ages studied ranged from 3 years to adolescence (high school); however the majority of the articles (26 out of 30; 87%) focused on children in elementary school. Four studies focused specifically on preschoolers. Three major categories of therapeutic benefit emerged: a) increased reading and language skills (R), b) social, emotional, and humane gains (SE), and c) improved gross motor skills (GM). In addition, several articles discussed common concerns and recommendations for implementing the practice of having a dog in the classroom. Refer to Table 1 for first author, year, category, population, and a summary of main findings.

Summary of animal-assisted literacy programs:

Literacy is defined as the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, compute, and communicate using visual, audible, and digital materials across disciplines and in any context (International Literacy Association n.d.). There is a mismatch between the literacy demands of society and the literacy standards of education. "The fact that millions of children in North America struggle with learning to read is well documented" (Friesen 2012, 103) Literacy is a necessary foundational skill in life, yet 21% of American adults read at or below a fifth-grade level (Weller 2015). To help remedy this widespread issue, literacy standards in primary classrooms have increased. "Given these early and high expectations for literacy, the pressure is on for larger numbers of young children to reach unprecedented level of proficiency" (Levinson et al. 2017, 4). Educators are using alternative teaching methods to tackle new expectations, one method being the use of animal-assisted literacy programs.

Intermountain Therapy Animals launched the R.E.A.D. program as the first comprehensive literacy program whose mission is to improve the literacy skills of children through the assistance of registered therapy teams as literacy mentors. Today, thousands of registered R.E.A.D. teams work throughout the US, Canada, United Kingdom, Italy, Finland, France, Sweden, South Africa, Spain, and beyond. The organization has over 3,000 volunteer teams registered, each passing a test regarding R.E.A.D's procedures and values in addition to passing the therapy dog certification exam (Shaw 2013). The implementation of each satellite program is varied, but most R.E.A.D. sessions span approximately 20-30 minutes while the students sit and read to a therapy dog with the handler present. A case study set in a Florida primary classroom recorded that participating students experienced tremendous gains in reading ability due to the inclusion of a therapy dog. The success of the program led to neighboring schools adopting similar practices. (Lane and Zavada 2013). In an effort to aid others in implementing animal-assisted literacy programs, Jalongo (2005) lists twelve best practices for those wanting to begin a R.E.A.D. program. Among the suggestions, Jalongo discusses the importance of gaining administrative support and creating an operating budget. In addition, Jalongo reiterates the significance of using a certified therapy dog along with combining the training of handlers with the expertise of teachers in order to maximize effectiveness.

Therapy Dogs International launched a similar program named Tail Waggin' Tutors. The main objective of this program is to provide a relaxed and dog-friendly atmosphere, which allows students to practice the skill of reading (Therapy Dogs International 2017). Tail Waggin' Tutors is hosted in a multitude of...

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