It’s not just dog-walking. Animals really can be your best friend, according to Chris Kent.

Dogs can be a powerful tool for engagement, reintroduction to learning, motivation, fun and can ably assist with difficult discussions about emotions, grief, anger, fear of failure…. just about anything. There is a growing awareness of animal assisted interventions (AAI) in education, health, residential and community care and in the criminal justice system.

An Animal Assisted Intervention is a goal oriented and structured intervention that includes animals in health, education and human services (eg, social work) for the purpose of therapeutic gains in humans. In animal visiting programmes, where trained therapy dogs and their owners visit people in hospital or residential settings, visits to schools may focus on skill development, such as dog assisted reading programmes. 

Therapeutic programmes using smaller companion animals such as dogs, cats or guinea pigs may also be included in programmes delivered by trained professionals such as counsellors, physiotherapists, speech and language therapists and occupational therapists. More recently there has been an increase in care farms who have established visiting programmes encouraging individuals and groups to visit their farms, to advance skills and enhance self-development. 

AAI programmes can confer many benefits to clients, staff, visitors, animals and the wider community. The presence of animals helps to normalise a facility and provides an opportunity for the giving and receiving of nurture and for tactile comfort. Animal presence produces measurable positive physiological responses in neurotransmitter levels, improved cardiovascular function and a reduction in the levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. The elevation in oxytocin levels, for example, facilitates social interaction, improving communication between residents and with staff. Mood is elevated, and people are happier and less stressed. 

Well balanced dogs, in particular, can work extremely well—they are fun, sociable, calming, distracting, tactile, friendly, non judgemental and receptive to mood and emotions, and general all round positive role models. They can teach about living in the moment, overcoming fears, having fun, learning new things. They can provide a welcome distraction, something safe to talk about, something physical to actually “DO” when the talking gets too painful or difficult. The sessions can build resilience, boost positive psychological well being, develop confidence, enhance relationship building (with both the dog and worker), and increase problem-solving skills. 

Jamie, aged 10, after two one-hour sessions of a dog-assisted education group: “My life is so much better, Miss, with these dogs in it” 

For teenagers on the autistic spectrum who believe everyone is looking at them, who hate to be the centre of attention and whose embarrassment is so acute that they do not like to leave the house, a dog can be a link to the outside world. 

Gary was 16 and had not been in school since before covid—his social anxiety was so high he rarely left the house, or even his room. Sessions with a dog and handler initially took place in his garden, then progressed to sitting outside nearby, then a walk around the block—all with Mum. Walking the dog on the lead provided a physical task to concentrate on which distracted from the anxiety of being outside. The walks then progressed without Mum, and a plan was formed with Gary’s input where comfort zones were extended to the local town. Sitting outside with mugs of hot chocolate in winter soon progressed to going into a café, with all the noise and people. Always with a dog to provide distraction, comfort, and fun. Once inside, Gary gradually progressed from sitting straight down in a corner seat to walking up to the counter to order his drink. Scary stuff, made easier with a dog. In addition of course if you have a cute dog people come across to talk, so Gary changed from shrinking into his seat, to maybe giving a little eye contact, and sometimes maybe even saying a word or two. All the time the dog provides a distraction, a source of amusement and conversation. Sometimes a dog may not be totally confident to enter a new place—another source of conversation. “How can we help her? What helped you?” 

Walking a dog through a busy town centre (after guidance, and only when ready) requires a level of skill development and involves looking where you are going rather than down at the floor. It requires assessing where other people are walking, managing spatial awareness, improving motor skills and coordination. Not letting the dog trip you or anyone else up. 

“I never thought this dog would let me walk her through a busy area and that I would actually be able to do it” says Sian, aged 15.

Each incremental step leads us closer to the goal of a reintroduction of appropriate educational provision, and for the young person to be able to feel confident enough to access it. For a child with ADHD, a seemingly hyperactive dog, when working and intently focussing on a task such as scentwork, provides a visual learning metaphor that helps them see the best of themselves. “She’s a lot like me, Miss”. Students can accept that despite challenges there are many qualities in ADHD that are admirable. “I didn’t realise I could be lovable AND crazy!” “She’s so clever”.

The possibilities of working alongside dogs are limited only by our creativity and imagination. Of course, the dogs need to be temperament-assessed, and actually enjoy the work. The students need to like dogs, or at least be curious about them, and the handler needs to be knowledgeable about human and canine psychology, body language and learning abilities. 

Chris Kent
Author: Chris Kent

Chris Kent
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Chris Kent set up the K9 Project in 2008. She works alongside her K9 team of ex homeless dogs, currently focusing mostly with teenagers with an EHCP providing coaching and accredited

alternative education provision. In her spare time she helps her dogs write books




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