Is it possible to incorporate dog therapy in such a way that it will result in children’s increased motivation, engagement, and achievement in the area of literacy and especially writing, as well as empower children for life? In this article, I highlight positive results from an innovative experiment in which a collaborative team consisting of a second grade teacher and therapy dog owner designed such activities and saw substantial results for the entire class of second grade students.
What Are Therapy Dogs?
According to the definition by American Kennel Club, “Therapy dogs are dogs who go with their owners to volunteer in settings such as schools, hospitals, and nursing homes” (American Kennel Club, n.d.). The organization further describes: “From working with a child who is learning to read to visiting a senior in assisted living, therapy dogs and their owners work together as a team to improve the lives of other people” (American Kennel Club, n.d.).
Why Dog Therapy in Educational Settings and Beyond
The benefits of incorporating therapy dogs are well known in those settings that involve this type of therapy, such as schools, nursing homes, medical facilities (Braun, Stangler, Narveson, & Pettingell, 2009; Gawlinski & Steers, 2005), and beyond. These benefits span across social benefits, cognitive benefits (Jalongo, Astorino, & Bomboy, 2004), as well as emotional and mental ones (Barker & Dawson, 1098; Coakley & Mahoney, 2009). Benefits for children in educational settings alone are impressive and show that therapy dog teams have a potential to influence children’s socio-emotional and cognitive spheres (Beetz, 2015). Therapy dogs’ positive influence on children’s reading skills are especially well observed and documented (Bassette & Taber-Doughty, 2013; Booten, 2011; Briggs, 2003; Burns & DiLonardo, 2014; Dunlap, 2010; Fisher & Cozens, 2014; Garnto, 2014; Le Roux, Swartz, & Swart, 2014), including positive impact on reading for children with disabilities (Griess, 2010; Treat, 2013). I also discuss some of those benefits in my previous book, “The amazing power of dog therapy: How my therapy dog transformed children’s learning” (Vokatis, 2021).
Pushing the Boundaries Further
Even though benefits of dog therapy in educational settings are well known, very little is known how such dog therapy teams might impact students’ writing achievement and influence children’s thinking about their life goals. Very little is also known about experimenting in the area of dog therapy beyond activities such as children reading to therapy dogs, in order to see to what extent creative and experimental ways of incorporating dog therapy might impact children, including those children who experience difficulties with literacy, motivation, and engagement, especially in the area of writing. The book I am writing in collaboration with Lucinda Ormiston, the second grade teacher whose classroom I have been visiting, “Teachers and therapy dog teams: Collaborations to increase children’s literacy achievement, engagement, and motivation and to empower them for life,” written after experimenting with dog therapy in her classroom, offers such new directions and creative activities.
Two Crucial Aspects of the Innovative Dog Therapy
Two important factors are necessary in order to put the approach described in our book into practice: 1. a close and meaningful collaboration between a teacher and therapy dog team and 2. therapy dog owner’s own simple book about how the dog and owner became a dog therapy team. First, it is very important that both the teacher and therapy dog owner are both devoted to the idea of working together during dog therapy sessions and in weekly meetings in order to reflect on how the activity is going, if there are results, and what needs to be changed, as well as what the next steps are. Second, it is important that the therapy dog owner writes and self-publishes a simple book prior to starting activities with children. Such a book can be simply a memoir that details the journey from puppyhood to becoming a therapy dog, similar to my own book I wrote: “From unruly to therapy dog: The amazing journey” (Vokatis, 2021). Self-publishing a book is an important aspect because it will help children see the therapy dog owner as a book author, someone who writes and for whom writing is important in life. Our current book that will be soon published, “Teachers and therapy dog teams: Collaborations to increase children’s literacy achievement, engagement, and motivation and to empower them for life,” offers very simple ideas about how to conduct such activities and also how to self-publish a book. It is not required for the therapy dog owner to have background in education as many activities are relatively simple to implement with the teacher collaborator’s input and help.
The Innovative Therapy Dog Laboratory Idea that Resulted in Writing the Book
The activities described in the book “Teachers and therapy dog teams: Collaborations to increase children’s literacy achievement, engagement, and motivation and to empower them for life,” are a result of collaboration work I engaged in as a teacher educator volunteering with my certified therapy dog with a classroom teacher, Lucinda Ormiston. We started this collaboration in 2019, in Lucinda’s third grade. Then, during the COVID-19, we continued it virtually in her second grade. However, the 2021/22 school year was special. That year, our therapy dog visits started in the way the visits in previous years and in other classrooms occurred. Simply, when Carmel and I came in, I walked with her around the classroom allowing children to pet my dog and interact with her. Such interactions always provided a sense of calmness, relaxation, and joy for all children. But as Carmel was becoming an integral part of Lucinda’s classroom community, both Lucinda and I started thinking about ways to incorporate these visits into Lucinda’s curriculum in more focused ways and involving me as well, not just Carmel. That is how the idea of an experimentation lab was born. We started by simply asking children to write about what Carmel’s visits did for them. We also noticed that writing about anything in connection to Carmel gave children more joy in putting words on the paper. Therefore, we started thinking about other ways of incorporating Carmel’s visits into children’s writing. During that time, it also became obvious to me that I was not just a certified therapy dog owner. I became also a participant because my task was no longer to only handle my dog during the therapy but also to work with the teacher and students as we incorporated concrete educational activities.
Using the book, I wrote about my journey to becoming a certified therapy team to teach children about visualization was an incredible moment in our therapy dog lab we did every week for about 30-40 minutes. This idea was very successful because teaching children about visualization by using my own book about Carmel, the therapy dog they loved and were attached to, connected very well with children and made visualization more embedded in what the children already knew and were attached to. Did we think these ideas would work with children? No, we did not. But we saw that children were interested in anything initiated by me because of their already developed attachment to Carmel and me (Beck & Madresh, 2008). At one point, when we decided to do just a regular therapy session with Carmel (only petting, no literacy activities), children actually said, “We want to do visualization!” This was such a crucial moment because the fact that children demanded this literacy activity when Carmel and I were in the classroom meant that our creative ideas worked very well.
When we asked children if they would like to write their own autobiographies, they all responded with great enthusiasm. After that, each subsequent lesson, such as about creating a book cover, introduction, and writing the first chapter and other chapters were all met with continuous enthusiasm from the children. In fact, as Lucinda said to me, all children wanted to do is write, work on their bibliographies, and nothing else mattered more to them than this writing. I personally witnessed this enthusiasm throughout my time spent in the classroom. As I was leaving the classroom, the children always asked me to stay longer with Carmel. This result is especially astonishing because the work on autobiographies was quite involved, consisting of many steps and also redoing the work for a final copy. In addition, we also saw how children who would not even write a word became enthusiastic writers who wrote a book and had plans for writing more. Moreover, as their work was finished, some children pledged that they would continue writing books during the summer. Some children also decided they would become book writers and therapy dog handlers in the future. Children’s responses to interview questions for my present research study were also striking. All children said that creating their own autobiographies and petting Carmel were the best parts of our therapy visits. One of the students expressed his big life goal, “When I get older, I’m going to write a couple thousand books!”
Currently, I am analyzing data gathered during this exploratory pilot study using the hermeneutic phenomenology approach. The preliminary themes based on interviews with teachers, classroom observations, and children’s writing are uncovering the lived experience of the participants in the study: a sense of unique belonging in the friendship community, a sense of learning about what interacting with a dog in the classroom entails, a sense of unique attachment, and a sense of building more engaged learning.
Vision for the Future
In my vision for the future, I see more attention to incorporating therapy dogs in educational settings, and particularly promoting collaborations between teachers and therapy dog teams by teacher educators in educational coursework around the world. I hope my application, Carmel Therapy Dog App will also facilitate these goals. I also would like to see professional development for teachers that involves such collaborations. Further exploration of experimental activities and research in this area would be desirable as well.
American Kennel Club. (n.d.). What is a therapy dog?
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Vokatis, B. (2021). The amazing power of dog therapy: How my therapy dog transformedchildren’s learning. Independently published.