Understanding the impact of therapy dogs on children’s wellbeing in educational settings

Christine Grove, Linda Henderson, Louisa Trainer, Hannah Schena, Marcelle Prentice

    Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstract


    The use of therapy dogs has gained traction in recent times. Increasingly, it is being recognised that the use of therapy dogs have a positive impact on peoples’ well-being. For example, the use of therapy dogs for people with mental illness is now generally accepted as a legitimate form of therapy (Glingborg & Hanson, 2017). In education, there is an increasing awareness, and uptake, of the use of therapy dogs to support children’s learning and well-being (Elms, et al., n.d). However, most of the work with therapy dogs in education settings is being undertaken by volunteer organisations. For example, Story Dogs currently have 329 dog teams involved with schools across Australia (https://www.storydogs.org.au). Largely though, this work is under-researched with most research being small single case studies (e.g.: Putz, 2014; Smith, 2009). Because of this there remains concerns about the use of therapy dogs in education settings. For example, concerns raised are focused around perceived risks such as: sanitation, allergies and safety issues (Sheckler, 2017). This highlights the urgent need for larger research studies to determine the impact of therapy dogs on children’s learning and well-being in education settings if some of these perceived risks are to be addressed. Without this research, the uptake of these educational programs will remain relatively small. The overarching research aim of this symposium is to share the impact of therapy dogs on children’s well-being when used in a primary school setting.Abstract #2Wellbeing in children is recognised as an ever-evolving construct, with its risk and contributing factors of utmost interest. The present study aimed to investigate the link between childhood wellbeing and therapy dogs. Specifically, the research explored whether a difference in wellbeing levels was achieved from participation in the therapy dog reading program, Story Dogs, from the teacher’s perspective. This research was one component of a three-part study, which also gathered data from the parent and child perspective. To assess the aim, a quantitative and qualitative approach was conducted. Data was collected from eight, Australian teachers, whose students were participating in the program, and was examined by a pre-program and post-program questionnaire, and interviews post-program. The quantitative results did not demonstrate any significant findings for the teacher’s perspective of the wellbeing progress, however the qualitative results were more informative. The thematic analysis generated five themes, namely, ‘sense of being special’, ‘confidence’, ‘autonomy’, ‘emotional development’ and ‘reading development’. These themes were synthesised against current literature, which revealed a connection of the therapy dog program to positive wellbeing. The findings of this study add to the understanding of factors, which may influence wellbeing in children. Additionally, the present study provides insight on how therapy dogs may be utilised in educational settings, and the benefit they may create for the students engaging with them.
    Abstract #3Wellbeing is a key focus in Australian society, and schools are recognised as the ideal setting to strive for the promotion of child wellbeing. A recent trend in fostering wellbeing is the use of therapy dogs. In schools, dog-assisted reading programs have been implemented with the aim of creating a relaxed and non-judgmental setting for children to increase their literacy skills, confidence and wellbeing. The Story Dogs reading program is now available in 293 schools Australia-wide. The present study aimed to explore the impact of the Story Dogs’ reading program on the wellbeing of children, as reported from the perspective of their parents. An exploratory mixed-methods approach was used. Seven participants completed semi-structured interviews, and six participants completed pre-program and post-program questionnaires. Quantitative results were unable to be interpreted due to the limited sample size and inability to match participants on their pre- and post-program data. Qualitative analysis of semi-structured interviews with parents found their child’s experience to be represented by four themes: ‘child’s relationship with the reading dog’, ‘reading-related developments’, ‘emotional response to the program’ and ‘parental support of the program’. Findings suggest a positive parental response to dog-assisted reading programs, and the potential of these programs to positively impact the wellbeing of children, which provides considerations for the development and implementations of dog-assisted wellbeing programs in educational settings. Further research with a larger sample size and control group is necessary to determine whether dog-assisted reading programs have a significant impact on widely-used wellbeing indicators.
    Abstract #4Over the past two decades, Animal-Assisted Interventions (AAIs) have gained traction. Within educational settings, AAIs have typically been evaluated in terms of their capacity to improve students’ literacy skills via dog-assisted reading programs. However, to date, few studies have examined the impact of therapy dogs on students’ wellbeing; an opportunity missed given a large and growing proportion of Australian students have a mental illness. Consequently, the present study’s first aim was to examine the impact that therapy dogs have on students’ wellbeing, from the perspective of volunteer handlers from a dog-assisted reading program. The study’s second aim was to identify the strengths and barriers of the dog-assisted reading program, as well as potential avenues to overcome any identified barriers. Six volunteer handlers from the organisation ‘Story Dogs’ participated in semi-structured interviews in order to gain participants’ insights regarding the study’s research questions and aims. The resulting interview transcripts were analysed using Braun and Clarke’s six phase model of thematic analysis - a qualitative method used to identify, analyse and report on patterns (or themes) that occur within qualitative data. Four thematic patterns were identified in response to research aim one: ‘Judgement-Free Zone’, ‘Emotional Catharsis’, ‘Re-engaging the Disengaged’, and ‘Ripple Effect’. Two thematic patterns were identified in response to research aim two: ‘Dog-Education’ (strength) and ‘Teacher-Handler Relationship’ (barrier). Like prior studies examining the impact of dog-assisted reading programs, the small sample size of this study limits the generalisability of findings. Furthermore, the present study did not have a no-dog control condition which restrains the interpretability of the findings, as the observed improvements in students' wellbeing could have been due to the one-on-one time spent with the handler, rather than the dog’s presence. The present study found that, from the handlers' perspectives, therapy dogs had a positive impact on all facets of children's wellbeing: emotional, physical, academic and social. This study therefore contributes to a growing body of literature indicating that the inclusion of therapy dogs in educational settings positively impacts students’ wellbeing and also offers insight into the key enablers and barriers of a therapy dog-assisted program.
    Learning outcomes- To understand the history and philosophical principles of animal assisted therapy- To introduce different facets of animal assisted therapy directive and non-directive- To identify and describe the applications of animal assisted therapy- To understand the benefits of animal assisted therapy
    Original languageEnglish
    Number of pages1
    Publication statusPublished - 2021
    EventAustralian Psychological Society (APS) College of Educational and Developmental Psychologists Virtual Conference 2021: Working together for the future - virtual/online, Melbourne, Australia
    Duration: 11 Feb 202112 Feb 2021


    ConferenceAustralian Psychological Society (APS) College of Educational and Developmental Psychologists Virtual Conference 2021
    Internet address

    Cite this