UBCO researchers use therapy dogs to help children learn social skills

Kids + dogs = social skills

University of British Columbia Okanagan

What's more precious than kids playing with dogs?

Well, a recent study done by the University of British Columbia Okanagan finds children gain benefits from working with therapy dogs and they enjoy it too.

“Dog lovers often have an assumption that canine-assisted interventions are going to be effective because other people are going to love dogs,” says Nicole Harris, who conducted this research while a master’s student in the School of Education.

“While we do frequently see children improve in therapy dog programs, we didn’t have data to support that they enjoyed the time as well.”

Over six weeks, 22 children from the Okanagan Boys and Girls Club were accompanied by therapy dogs from the Building Academic Retention through K9s (BARK) program to build their social skills.

Each week the children were taught a new skill, such as introducing themselves or giving directions to others.

“Therapy dogs are often able to reach children and facilitate their growth in surprising ways. We saw evidence of this in the social skills of children when they were paired with a therapy dog,” says Dr. John-Tyler Binfet, associate professor in the School of Education and director of BARK.

“The dogs helped create a non-threatening climate while the children were learning these new skills. We saw the children practice and hone their social skills with and alongside the dogs.”

The team collected data as the children were learning and practising their new skills.

“Our team saw that by interacting with the therapy dogs, the children’s moods improved and their engagement in their lessons increased," says Harris.

87 per cent of the team rated the children’s engagement level as very or extremely engaged during the sessions.

“Dogs have the ability to provide many stress-reducing and confidence-boosting benefits to children,” says Harris. “It was really heartwarming to see the impact the program had on the kids.”

Half of the children said they felt the dogs helped with their emotional well-being, with one participant crediting a dog with helping him “become more responsible and control his silliness.”

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