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Exploring Animal-Assisted Programs with Children in School and Therapeutic Contexts

Animal-Assisted programs with children are becoming increasingly popular in school and therapeutic settings. This article provides an overview of the benefits accrued by children as well as the concerns with programs which involve animals, and therapy dogs in particular, in these environments. Research over the past 30 years indicates that therapy dogs may offer physiological, emotional, social, and physical support for children. The distinguishing features of Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) are characterized by the supplemental inclusion of a trained therapy dog in reaching an intervention goal in therapeutic environments, and as a supplement to an educational objective in school contexts. The general assumptions underlying AAT with children are that although therapy dogs are interactive, children seem to perceive them as non-judgmental participants who are outside of the complications and expectations of human relationships. This unique interaction may offer children a valuable form of social and emotional support in educational and therapeutic settings.

In summary, the distinguishing features of AAT with children in therapeutic environments are characterized by their incorporation into treatment plans as a supplement to an intervention goal, and in special-needs environments as a supplement to an educational objective. Particularly because therapy dogs often work in public environments, they require extensive obedience and temperance training and are always accompanied by their handler or by the handler/therapist. Potential candidates for AAT are identified by the special education teacher or by the therapist based on a clear understanding of a child’s educational or therapeutic goals.

The general assumptions underlying AAT with children are that the children seem to perceive therapy dogs as a neutral or non-judgmental participant in the therapeutic or classroom environment. Educators tend to think of the word support as indicating direct and verbal involvement when working with children.

The nature of the interaction between children and animals in school and therapeutic environments does not exclusively include treatment of maladjustment as the term therapy dog implies. Therefore, perhaps a more accurate term for what is currently referred to as AAT in school environments might be Animal Assisted Learning, which may more fully ‘‘capture the essence of the relationship’’ between children and these animals.


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