Animal therapy has grown in popularity over the last few years as teachers continue to search for new ways to support children with disabilities. School dogs are cropping up across the UK to support students having difficult with activities like reading, while simultaneously fostering a positive environment for all children.

"Encouraging nonverbal children to read to a therapy animal can often be more effective than interacting with trained speech therapists and reading coaches, allowing the child to exercise their free will in a situation free of judgement or expectation."

Animal Assisted Therapy (ATT) by definition must be delivered by a professional such as a psychologist or a teacher. Therapy is goal-directed, the children are set achievable objectives and outcomes are measured and evaluated. AAT is undertaken with the intention to support children through important social, emotional and physical developments.

Animal Assisted Activities, on the other hand, are more often animal workshops with less structured objectives. These activities are often undertaken for an educational purpose but may still have social and emotional benefits for the children involved.

For children with disabilities of all kinds, animal therapy can be hugely beneficial and has previously made major changes to children’s lives in many different ways.

Animal therapy for children with learning disabilities

For children with conditions like ADHD and Autism, animal therapy can encourage the development of long-term methods to help with issues such as emotional regulation and memory retention.

Supporting children with ADHD through AAT

Therapy animals can be used for interventions aimed at improving children’s memory retention through play and responsibility. For children with ADHD, improvements in memory and problem solving ability can improve academic attainment which in turn can lead to improvements in self confidence.

Additionally, regularly walking and playing with a dog reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol and increases oxytocin. This can help children with ADHD who experience stress and anxiety which exacerbates their issues in a classroom environment.

Ways animal therapy has helped children with autism

Animal therapy to assist children on the autistic spectrum is one of the most common cases and has a number of useful benefits for children on the spectrum in any capacity. Encouraging nonverbal children to read to a therapy animal can often be more effective than interacting with trained speech therapists and reading coaches, allowing the child to exercise their free will in a situation free of judgement or expectation.

The ability of animals to manage hormone levels can also be effective in supporting children experiencing sensory overload or children in a meltdown. For these children, the body’s physical reaction to animals can help them find ways to self-regulate during periods of heightened distress.

The person first credited with using dogs as a method of therapy, Brian Levinson, observed how the presence of a dog helped to strengthen an autistic child’s connection with their environment. Levinson was a child psychologist who found that when he brought his dog Jingles along to sessions with his patients, they were much more responsive and made efforts to initiate conversations. Children with autism who have dogs as pets are also often able to form strong social bonds with the animals which can help when it comes to socialising with peers and adults.

How animal therapy can help children with physical disabilities

As well as the many natural benefits the presence and interaction with therapy animals can bring, there is also evidence to suggest that pet therapy can help children with physical disabilities in overcoming a number of issues.

Reducing blood pressure

Simply having a pet dog has been shown to improve the blood pressure of those in the house. While this is most likely linked to the need for regular exercise dogs bring, the act of stroking a dog has also been linked to reduced blood pressure. Because of its ability to regulate hormones, regular interaction with a therapy animal can improve children’s general health.

Supporting fine and gross motor skills

The tactile stimulation of stroking or brushing therapy animals can help children with issues like cerebral palsy to develop their fine motor skills in a similar way to physiotherapy activities. Additionally, children with gross motor issues can benefit from the regular exercise of walking a dog.

How effective is animal therapy?

Animal Assisted Therapy is still a fairly new phenomenon and while general consensus is inconclusive, there is a great deal of research* with positive outcomes. Each child is different so each session must be tailored to their learning style and their objectives.

The potential of animals to bring positivity to people’s lives is commonly recognised and as animal therapy becomes more popular, this power is sure to help children of all kinds to develop socially, emotionally and physically.

This article was written by Damon Culbert from Wild Science, provider of Animal Assisted Activities in schools across the UK.