Paws in the Classroom: Therapy Dogs Help with Social Emotional Learning

Photo by San Jose Public Library cc-by-sa-2.0

Notice a wagging tail disappear around the corner in the hall of your children’s school? Therapy dogs help with Social Emotional Learning in schools these days. What’s that all about? Read on for more…

What’s a Therapy Dog?

Therapy dogs are furry companions who are trained to help comfort people in a facility setting like a hospital, nursing home, library or school. However, they are different from service dogs, who are trained to provide a specific service for a particular person. Therapy dogs can work with their handler and a group or single person for different types of tasks. For example, children can learn about emotions in a non-stressful way by watching the dog and discussing how he might be feeling when he does certain things like wag his tail or flop down on the floor.

But not just any dog can be a therapy dog: they have to be registered. First, in order to become registered as a therapy dog, a dog goes through training and has to pass different levels of testing, depending on where they will be working. The most basic of these tests is the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen, for which a dog must know the commands look and leave it, be able to walk with a loose leash and not jump on people.

How Does a Dog Help with Social Emotional Learning?

A dog can change the attitude of a room just by walking in the door. But it’s not so obvious how they can help with Social Emotional Learning. According to Edutopia, therapy dogs can:

  • Lower people’s blood pressure and stress levels
  • Increase levels of dopamine and serotonin
  • Improve physical well-being
  • Decrease anxiety
  • Dramatically increase positive mood
  • Ease social isolation and help children learn social skills
  • Help young readers gain confidence

In schools, therapy dogs help with Social Emotional Learning by providing students with cognitive, physiological and social and emotional support. They uplift the mood of a classroom, can keep students engaged on the playground and help calm upset students. Dogs will sit with students while they read, as a non-judgmental ear and calming influence for beginners, struggling readers and new language learners. Time with a therapy dog is also a fun reward for good behavior and stellar academics.

Recently, more and more schools have incorporated dogs into their Social Emotional Learning (SEL) programs. Mainly, schools  have therapists or teachers who bring their therapy dog in to work with them a few days a week. Some school districts have therapists with dogs who are available for all schools or particular students. One school, named Licking Valley Primary School, owns their own therapy dog. How perfect is that?

Where Can I Get One for My School?

If you are interested in starting the process of getting a therapy dog to help teach SEL at your school, the website Charlotte’s Litter has reference material for parents and educators, along with dog handler resources to help you connect the right people to your puppy. They also award grants twice year. Applications are due in January for February grants and July for August grants. See their website for details.

Already have a dog you’d like to volunteer with? 4 Paws Learning and Wellness Center offers training classes in the Bay Area. Wondering if Camp EDMO® has a therapy dog? Well…maybe someday we will!