Pets in the Classroom Q&A: How Pets Help Kids Learn

A new review of research, out this week, finds that pets in the classroom could help kids learn by, among other benefits, keeping them interested and motivating good behaviors. That’s even more support for the benefits of pets that are at the heart of our BETTER CITIES FOR PETS™ program.

Nancy Gee and Freya

To understand the research findings, we talked with Nancy Gee, researcher and lead author of Human–Animal Interaction Research in School Settings: Current Knowledge and Future Directions. The review is from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition.

It seems natural that pets in the classroom would delight kids. What’s new with this research review?

There are so many anecdotes about how animals affect student learning, but there isn’t that much actual data about the benefits of human-animal interaction (HAI) in these settings.

This paper brings together research from around the world and organizes it within a framework that helps us understand the impact of animals on kids in a learning setting. It also helps guide the direction of future research on this topic.

What did you find?

Well, as just a few examples, when an animal is brought into a classroom setting, kids are more likely to follow instructions1 and to focus on a task2. They ask more appropriate questions and engage with their teacher more3. There are fewer emotional outbursts4 and more positive behaviors5.

Think of your own experiences with kids around dogs. Kids want to get involved – they want to meet the dog and get to pet her. So, they start paying attention and sitting still, because they know if they’re good, they have a better chance of getting that opportunity. A study showed kids actually paid more attention to the teacher in the presence of a dog!3

So, this review seems to support the conjecture that pets in the classroom are motivating and build wonderful, classroom-appropriate kinds of behaviors. Now, we need studies to examine whether these improvements last. Do the great behaviors kids learn follow them into the real world? Do they remain a few days, months or years later? More research is needed to answer these important questions.

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How does this help educators?

It validates what they already believe from informal experience. Many teachers have brought pets into the classroom or arranged animal visits, though not as many schools have formal programs to support it. The research review suggests there’s a real, scientific grounding for pets in the classroom, and these potential benefits should be further explored and better understood.

Also, now that we know that pets in the classroom can have positive benefits, we can begin to establish scientifically based best practice guidelines for having animals in educational settings. The benefits are most apparent when the experience is positive for the animals and the kids, so planning and guide rails are needed to make sure the pets are happy and cared for appropriately.

How do you make pets in the classroom a positive experience?

Animal welfare considerations are key. How will the animal be treated in the classroom? Who will care for it on weekends and school holidays? What does it need based on its species and personality? There are a lot of considerations, but they aren’t hard to overcome if you take the time to understand the animal and do some planning.

Guinea pigs are very social, for example, so you wouldn’t want to adopt just one. But to have two, you need to have enough space for them to live comfortably, and they must be socialized to interact well with each other and with children. There are also considerations specific to individual animals. One who seems to have a more anxious nature may not work out in a classroom, and may need to be re-homed to a place where it’s happier. But other animals seem to enjoy being around active, busy kids.

The key is to learn the species-specific indicators of stress for the pet, and make sure what you’re doing isn’t causing stress. Instead, you want to create a great life for the pet that, in turn, makes him happy to interact with the kids, for all the benefits that provides.

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What other advice do you have for teachers who want to have pets in the classroom?

There’s a helpful resource on this, a book called How Animals Help Students Learn that you can get on Amazon and that I was so happy to help produce. It was really a labor of love to help students and teachers have the best experience possible, and proceeds from it go to Canine Companions for Independence.

What’s next in research in this area?

This review helped shed light on many future areas of research that would be helpful. It also showed that there are likely opportunities to add HAI evaluation into studies underway that might not be considering animals as a factor – for example studies on student motivation, learning, self-control, test anxiety and more.

Here at WALTHAM, we’re involved in several research projects that are nearing completion and that have some really exciting potential. A University of Liverpool longitudinal study is looking at the impact of pet ownership in a three-generation study of families, so we can explore things like whether growing up with pets affects performance in school or development of empathy.

A University of Lincoln experiment is looking at how interacting with dogs affects empathy, self-esteem, anxiety and other variables for eight- and nine-year-old kids – and the early data seems to be showing a positive impact, especially for special needs children. And, a study at Washington State University is examining the impact of dogs for university students who are at-risk academically.

So, there are great insights on the horizon. As researchers, our focus is always on keeping an open mind and seeing where the results take us. Data already shows pets can make life better. The more we keep learning about specifically how the human-animal bond has an impact, the more we can make life better for people and pets.

Pets make life better

Thanks to Nancy Gee for sharing her insights with us in this Q&A. With their unconditional love and comforting presence, pets make life better for so many people. That’s why the BETTER CITIES FOR PETS™ program advocates for more pet-friendly places and policies – so everyone can enjoy the benefits pets bring.

What’s your experience with pets in the classroom? What tips would you offer? Please share this article on social media and add your two cents. We’re @marspetcareus.

1 Gee, Harris, & Johnson, 2007; Gee, Sherlock, Bennett, & Harris, 2009.
2 Gee, Crist, and Carr, 2010; Gee, Church, and Altobelli, 2010.
3 Kotrschal & Ortbauer, 2003.
4 Anderson & Olson, 2006; Esteves & Stokes, 2008.
5 Esteves & Stokes, 2008.

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