The Magic of the Human Animal Bond: The Roles of Animals in Our Child’s Life
Aubrey H. Fine, EdD, Professor Emeritus, CA Poly State University
All of us would agree that we live in a seemingly unchartered era of time. The uncertainty of COVID-19 has had a tremendous impact on all of us. The situation compels many of us to reconsider what is important and how we continue to move our lives forward. When we consider the roles that animals have in supporting the lives of our children, Mary Hessler-Kay reminds me of a quotation in her book From What Animals Teach Us. She states, “When we open our hearts and accept what are our companion animals have to teach us, we gain not only the secrets to a more fulfilled life, but also a greater sense of peace and compassion.”
I have witnessed personally, as well as professionally, the positive impact of human animal interactions. Scientists are more rigorously documenting studies on these relations. In so many ways their findings (science) are catching up to what many of us have known intuitively for centuries: animals are good for our well-being. Over the past few months, we have seen many people engage even more with their animals for their companionship, love and social support. In so many ways, our animals provide us with a source of levity and joy in a time that can be challenging. Our pets can bring a sense of calmness and security into our homes and can be especially helpful to our children in this unusual time. They also provide our children with a positive outlet for play as well as daily consistency. Just like our children, animals need a routine and consistency.
In essence, companion animals provide stability in many people’s homes. For some, family members seem to find social-emotional support from their pets, support that facilitates coping and resilience. Children’s bonds with their pets can offer comfort, affection and a sense of security. Our animals may also act as an emotional buffer during stressful situations for our children. They may use their relationship with their pet as a “buffer” to help support their self-calming. Research has demonstrated that some children, when taught how to get more support from their pet, may exhibit fewer behavioral problems because they have an outlet to help them regulate reactions to environmental stressors.
The primary goal of this article is to extend this introduction about the importance of animals during this very challenging time in our history, and provide you with an overview of the value of companion and therapy animals in the lives of your children. This article will also include how trained therapy animals can support their learning in schools.
The Health Benefits of Animals in Our Homes
Many people have heard about the health benefits of pets in people’s lives. It was in early 1980s that researchers began publishing research highlighting that pets help people relax and that calm interaction may lead to short-term, anti–arousal effects, including a decrease in blood pressure and heart rate. Current research is now focusing on the impact of human animal interactions on our overall well-being including its impact on our brain chemistry. This new evidence emphasizes that positive interactions with our pets can trigger the release of “feel good” neural transmitters. The most interesting research today relates to the changes in our neurotransmitters and our neuropeptides because of our physical interactions with animals. It has been discovered that, while interacting (e.g. petting, talking to and even staring into their eyes), our endorphin (oxytocin and dopamine) levels increase significantly, while cortisol levels decrease significantly. Oxytocin makes you feel happy, calm, patient, trusting and sensitive to non-verbal forms of communication. One could view petting a dog as a sort of “biological spa treatment.” Our interactions may contribute to our overall well-being.
Furthermore, we have all witnessed that having an animal nearby significantly increased the chances of conversation, which indirectly encouraged social interaction. During this pandemic, many of you may have personally witnessed or read in the media about the importance of our relationships, especially in times of social isolation. Many report that being around animals contributes to their feeling less isolated and more engaged with others. For children, they can become good friends, especially when parents help support this process. Finally, beyond the plethora of research on the physiological benefits of companion animals, a great deal of research also highlights psychological and social benefits of human-animal interactions. Such studies show that human relationships with animals can have numerous psychological benefits including decreasing depression, anxiety, and stress.
How Animals Help Children Learn: A brief introduction to animal assisted interventions
There is an old saying, “There is no greater psychiatrist in the world than a puppy licking your face.” In many ways, that statement is very true. Those of us who have ever received the tender love of a puppy can easily imagine how therapeutic it can be. I came upon understanding the impact of human animal connections as a therapeutic option completely by accident–long before the field recognized its potency. I call my experience truly serendipitous.
I grew up in Canada not having any pets in my childhood. My mother was afraid of animals and her response to animals influenced the way I interacted. Who would have thought that decades later that living with a menagerie of animals would enrich my life? These animals became part of my family and professional work. Sasha (my first pet—a young gerbil) helped me witness firsthand how an animal can have an impact on children in a therapeutic setting.
At that time (early 1970s), I was a college student and was directing a social skills training program for the Quebec Association for Children with Learning Disabilities. The program met twice a week. On one occasion, I simply brought Sasha to introduce her to some of the children in the program. To my amazement, children who were usually active and impulsive instead sat patiently, waiting their turn to hold her gently. I recall one boy who wanted to hold her. Before allowing him to do so, I asked him to sit down next to me and put his two palms together next to his tummy. I then told him that I would place Sasha into his palms, but he needed to stay very still and calm so he would not scare her. What I remember the most from that morning was a boy looking at me with a huge smile, letting me know that he would not move. Once I recognized the great effect this small creature had, she became a regular guest to our program. Children loved seeing her and were always at their best behavior. Sasha was the catalyst for my pursuit to learn how to incorporate a wide array of animals into my work with children.
Over the last fifty years, animal-assisted interventions (AAI) have grown from strategies explained primarily by anecdotal comments to outcomes, to sound empirical inquiry that are now considered as an optimal complementary therapy. A variety of settings, including schools can offer Animal Assisted Interventions. Children can benefit from having animals in their classroom in a variety of ways. Animals can teach children important character values such as empathy as well as provide opportunities to demonstrate responsibility. Having trained therapy animals in the classroom can provide an alternative to motivate our students and encourage their engagement. Animals can act as a social catalyst, enhancing a students’ willingness to participate. The animal’s presence appears to affect the learning environment and promotes a sense of calmness. In essence, the animal’s presence makes a classroom homier.
Research highlights that the presence of a therapy dog may mediate students’ stress and reduce anxiety. With reduced stress levels, children become more ready and able to complete their cognitive demands within the classroom. For example, research highlights that one of the benefits of reading dog programs is they seem to decrease a child’s level of anxiety to read. Children often comment about how they feel more comfortable reading aloud while sitting next to a dog. One child noted, “They sit there and don’t interrupt. They don’t ask questions like people.” Another testimony shared by a child noted, “last year I was in grade one. I did not know how to read. I did not feel very good about myself. After I started to read to Hart, (the visiting reading dog), I felt good. She makes me feel happy because she seems that she listens to me more. Mostly when I read to people they’re looking around and not listening to me.” These anecdotal comments provide further evidence that the animals seem to make it easier for children to do things that they may not want to do.
Current research is presently bridging our understanding of how therapy animals can support the learning of children in schools. It is amazing how an animal’s presence could have such a significant impact on a child’s willingness to engage. For example, a teacher may ask a student to complete a task and receive some resistance. However, the same task when requested alongside a therapy animal could have a completely different outcome. For instance, Sally was receiving some occupational therapy services at school. She was often uncooperative and would be resistant to do activities such as cutting some papers and following directions. However, when a new OT assistant joined her session, she responded very differently. Alex was a black Labrador, whom Sally seemed to enjoy being around. When asked to cut soft biscuits up for Alex and fill his bowl with water, Sally immediately complied with a smile on her face. Alex’s doggy samba and wagging of the tail seemed to reinforce her actions.
Although more scientific evidence is needed to support best practices, researchers, educators and clinicians have determined that the presence of a friendly, calm animal that is integrated in a classroom for a specific purpose can foster numerous executive functioning and pro-social skills. Examples include classrooms for children with autism that have successfully integrated a humane education program that included small animals such as guinea to foster pro-social skills in their students. The use of therapy animals in educational programs for children with ADHD, autism, and learning disabilities have been developed to enhance social competence, self-worth and self-regulation. As Roger Caras, a past president of the ASPCA once said, “dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.” Our companion animals do enrich our lives and can bring us great joy. They can inspire us to live each day to the fullest, learn to treat others with kindness and become fuller humans. They can also have a tremendous impact on our children’s cognitive and emotional development, especially when animals engage children at home and in school. Celebrate and cherish the gifts from our connections to animals. The benefits can be far reaching!
Dr. Aubrey Fine received his graduate degree from University of Cincinnati in 1982 and has been on the faculty at California State Polytechnic University since 1981. His leadership among faculty and teaching excellence earned him the prestigious Wang Award in 2001, given to a distinguished professor within the California State University system (23 Universities), in this instance for exceptional commitment, dedication, and exemplary contributions within the areas of education and applied sciences. Dr. Fine is also a licensed psychologist who opened his practice in Southern California in 1987. His practice specializes in treating children with ADHD, learning disabilities, developmental disorders and parent child relations.
Dr. Fine is the author of several books including the Therapist’s Guide to Learning and Attention Disorders, The Total Sports Experience for Children, Afternoons with Puppy, Our Faithful Companion, and The Handbook on Animal Assisted Therapy.