From those just starting out in school to students making their way through the world, we look at the ways animals can help young people with their wellbeing
Animal therapy is a growing trend in schools across the UK. Four-legged friends are used in primary schools as a treatment for a number of social, psychological, and physical issues experienced by children with disabilities and behavioural disorders.
However, pet therapy can also be highly beneficial for older children and even university students. While younger children may experience more developmental benefits, the power of pets has shown to have an impact on the wellbeing of those in secondary school and above.
Help for young children
Most commonly, therapy dogs can be used to support autistic children. For example, non-verbal children may be encouraged to read to the animals rather than the adult, which often has great results in enabling children to grow in confidence in an environment without judgement or expectation.
The act of stroking an animal has been proven to have physiological and psychological benefits for children who struggle with emotion regulation.
Trained therapy animals also respond differently to children who are experiencing high levels of stress, anxiety or anger, and children with behavioural issues are better able to regulate their emotions by seeing how their behaviour affects the animal’s reaction to them.
In secondary schools
Some secondary schools are also celebrating the benefits of animal presence in the classroom, such as Oakfield High School in Wigan. The science department keeps a number of exotic and (mostly) cuddly animals which are integrated into the curriculum, helping students learn about variation, selective breeding and classification.
The presence of the animals in the study environment isn’t technically animal therapy, as therapy must have observable outcomes and practitioners work towards specific goals. However, environments like the one at Oakfield are classed as Animal Assisted Activities, which are more loosely regulated and often have a more educational or recreational objective.
Despite this, animal activities can still have social and psychological benefits, as children are more likely to be sensitive to their environment in the presence of animals, making for a calmer and more relaxed classroom experience.
Improving mental health in universities
In universities, the trend of bringing animals on campus to relieve student stress began in the US and Canada but has moved to the UK, with universities in places like Edinburgh, Leeds and Warwick welcoming therapy dogs onto their grounds.
In the same way stroking animals helps emotional regulation in younger children, young adults stroking animals are likely to have increased levels of oxytocin and reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Relieving stress on campus is a much-discussed subject and short sessions with therapy animals can help to improve struggling students’ moods, especially in exam season or around deadlines. Many students miss their pets at home and often can’t afford or aren’t allowed to keep pets of their own, so these sessions can be a great relief as well as a small home comfort.
Whether it’s as pets or as therapy aids, people of all ages can benefit from having animals in their lives. Research has shown that animals bring a number of benefits to the minds and bodies of those who interact with them. This research isn’t extensive but no doubt as animal assisted therapy grows in popularity, its observable benefits will become more broadly documented and more universities and schools will keep student dissatisfaction levels low with regular sessions from doctor dogs.
Find out more about Wild Science, provider of animal assisted activity workshops to schools and care homes around the UK, by heading to wildsci.co.uk