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Guest Blog: Pedagogical principles for successful animal-assisted interactions in the early years

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Friday, 11 June, 2021

Animals are special and important to many young children. In fact, even if they do not share their home with a pet, they will meet all kinds of animals through stories, television, film and toys. For example, from the Rainbow Fish to the Very Hungry Caterpillar; from Spot to the Three Bears, many of the much-loved characters in children’s favourite stories are animals. In this article we discuss how practitioners can build upon this sense of familiarity and natural curiosity to ensure that both children and animals benefit from each other’s interaction.

Animal assisted interventions (AAIs) feature a broad range of species. Whilst a class pet such as a fish, hamster or an African Land Snail have appeared in early childhood settings for many years, there has been a recent increase in the number of dogs becoming involved in educational contexts. In fact, in our recent survey of over 600 educators, dogs featured most commonly. This is perhaps because of their sociability, adaptability and longstanding bond with humans.

We know that young children can gain much from well-conceived AAIs. For example, young children can benefit from opportunities to explore a variety of textures, smells, sounds and colours. These sensory experiences also develop children’s confidence in speaking to and about the animal. There is growing evidence about the potential benefits for children’s wellbeing. They learn to take turns in caring for the needs of animals, take comfort from their presence and enjoy finding out more about how the animal feels, thinks and behaves.

For these benefits to be realised, however, it is important for practitioners to follow principles which can guide successful interventions and overcome some of the challenges that typically arise. For those early years’ leaders interested in AAIs, it is essential to have a clear rationale and pedagogy which considers the animal’s wellbeing alongside that of the children.

Pedagogical principles

Early years practitioners in England are familiar with the principles that underpin the Early Years Foundation Stage: children are unique, they learn through forming positive relationships, in enabling environments and in different ways and at different rates (DfE, 2017). These principles broadly underpin other curricula in the UK and internationally, and importantly can be adapted to suit AAIs (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Pedagogical principles, adapted from the Early Years Foundation Stage for AAIs

Respect everyone’s feelings, spaces and thoughts

Respect means allowing dogs to ‘just be’ themselves rather than seeing them as resources, objects or trick-performers. Educators also need to respect children’s choices (and their parents), for example as to whether they want to participate in any intervention, when and for how long. This means having a plan in place if the dog does not want to join in with a planned activity – for example by having a stuffed toy dog on standby.

It is important for young children to learn that animals have their own feelings and thoughts that deserve respect and protection. The UK has a reputation for being a nation of animal lovers. It was the first to pass animal welfare reforms in the nineteenth century and presently the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill is working in its way through parliament. This is a formal acknowledgement that animals, like us, are aware of their feelings and emotions.  

In practice, this means young children should be helped to learn to read a dog’s body language. Any signal must always be interpreted in the specific context because similar signs have different meanings in different situations. For example, a dog yawning might mean that it is tired, but it could also mean it is nervous. And when a dog licks its lips, this may be to convey stress not necessarily hunger. A head cocked to the side and a lifted paw can be signs of curiosity and anticipation. So, before Carlo the dog’s visit to a reception class, children worked in small groups to sort pictures of dogs into ‘happy’ and ‘sad’ categories, discussing what they thought dogs in different postures were trying to say. They then considered what they might do to help a dog who was looking sad or scared. They played with some stuffed toy dogs to practice standing still like a statue and using their quiet voices ready to meet Carlo. These activities helped prepare children for safe real-time interactions with Carlo, and also supported wider conversations about feelings and emotions.

Children can be shown amazing video clips on social media to illustrate dogs’ social and emotional intelligence. For example, they are more likely to approach someone who was crying than someone who was singing or talking (Laurie-Chambers, 2020). This can prompt discussion about how to be a good friend. Or using an app to give a dog a voice can offer opportunity to explore some real-life situations, for example during lockdown one teacher created a talking dog to check in on children on a weekly basis.

Behind the scenes, dogs learn through association and classical conditioning, for example in opening cupboard doors to retrieve food. Unlike humans, dogs rely heavily on scent and visual cues. They often pick up the meaning of gestures a lot quicker than spoken commands.  This can be beneficial for children who lack confidence in speaking aloud and can also help children see cause and effect in action.

Build positive relationships

The success of AAIs rests on the quality of relationships between children, adults and the animals. Successful relationships are based on values such as care, kindness and connection. Dogs also act as a non-judgemental friend which is one of the main reasons they are liked by so many children. Research (Kurdek, 2008) also suggests that young children respond positively to the security and proximity of dogs. These features of an attachment figure are linked to the degree to which children are involved in the animal’s care, as well as dog traits such as energy and intelligence. This means careful thought needs to be given to selecting the right dog for any intervention and expert advice should always be sought.

Both children and practitioners need to recognise and respect the uniqueness of each animal. Even fish have been shown to have different personalities! Within dog breeds, there are individual dogs who are calm and others more boisterous, and all will have different preferences, just like children.  In one pre-school setting young children enjoyed exploring whether Honey the golden retriever preferred sausages or dog biscuits as her treat (she chose sausages!). This led to lots of conversation about favourite things, and opportunities to compare and contrast each other’s ideas of a perfect treat. Children explored the concept of healthy snacks and began to think about the needs of themselves compared to the needs of Honey. For example, Honey brought her wash bag to each session which prompted the children to discuss and agree upon a rota for brushing Honey’s coat. They talked about why she had a toothbrush and a flannel, making connections to their own personal hygiene, and also developing fine motor skills and coordination as they gently groomed her.

Create opportunities for playful interaction

Dogs are social beings, just like children and adults. They learn through observation and interacting with others. And they enjoy playing and having fun. Working with Honey in one pre-school setting, several boys who were reluctant to speak were able to use gestures to encourage her to interact with them, patting their knees to call her over for a game of ball. They were able to observe how much Honey enjoyed this game, and that she kept returning for ‘more’. They also began to interact with each other more frequently, even on the days that Honey was not there. In time they began to talk to Honey, and also about Honey. This included talking at home about their experiences, which was a useful way to increase parental engagement with learning. The parents of children in the setting were often as keen as their children to hear about Honey’s day.

What is important is that the interactions between children, adults and dogs are based on playful learning. This does not mean that dogs should be regarded as playthings. Rather, it suggests that children should be intrinsically motivated to learn with, from and about the dog, while recognising that dogs are social creatures who need attention, love and active play to stay healthy. Games with rules help dogs’ mental health and enable them to stay sharp and focused. Teaching children games based on the three basic commands of SIT, DOWN and STAY, with rewards for when dogs do well, will help cement the bond between human and animal. Learning to use a clicker as a reward signal can help children develop coordination and observational skills, but does need careful supervision. Scarlet the cockerpoo visited a reception class to work with two children identified as having some difficulties making friends with other children. Opportunities to play games with Scarlet helped develop their self-confidence. The children were motivated to interact with each other and decided to take it in turns to hide a treat for Scarlet and then ask her to ‘find it’. They were amazed by her ability to sniff out treats that were hidden from view, and she delighted in the game as well.

Ensure that the environment is safe for all

Not all settings, not all children, and not all dogs are suitable for face-to-face interactions with one another. There may be phobias or anxieties amongst some children, or cultural reasons why a dog may not be suitable. There is no such thing as a completely allergy-free dog, so health issues may be a problem. And of course, any animal, and any child can be unpredictable. Organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals (RSPCA) discourages the keeping of school pets because the environment can be noisy and frightening to some animals, whose needs can be overlooked. Instead, the RSPCA recommends observing animals’ behaviour in their natural settings or the use of soft toys, role play and drama, alongside films and other resources.

Clearly, any educational intervention requires careful planning to ensure the environment is safe for all, but this is particularly so when other living beings are involved. Furthermore, given the popularity of dogs as pets in the UK, learning how to be safe around dogs is a life skill. By bringing a dog into a setting, children can be taught how to observe the dog’s natural behaviour, ‘read’ their signs and respond in the right way, even though an adult should always be present during the intervention.

An enabling environment applied to AAIs means ensuring appropriate health and safety measures are in place to minimise harm to all participants, but also that the environment enriches the experiences of all participants. Organisations involved in AAIs will have their own risk-assessment policies, and these typically cover identifying hazards (e.g., lack of supervision, injury to children, damage caused to school property, dog fouling), degree of potential injury, controls to eliminate or reduce such risks (e.g., adult supervision, training children) and the probability of an accident happening. And equally importantly, any AAI should be planned to be exciting and enjoyable for children, adults and the animal themselves.

Conclusion

These four principles are rooted in humane education which aims to nurture compassion and respect for all living beings. In our recently published book Tails from the Classroom (Crown House Publishing, 2021) we provide case studies of settings and schools who have demonstrated these principles in action. Bringing animals into early years’ settings is not a decision to be taken lightly. Following the four principles in this blog will help ensure that the interests of all are upheld.

About the authors

Dr Helen Lewis is Programme Director for PGCE at Swansea University School of Education. Part of her role involves leading an educational anthrozoology module, and undertaking original research into the impact of AAIs in educational settings. After studying animal and human behaviour at university she became a primary school teacher and has worked in education for over twenty years.

Dr Russell Grigg was previously an associate professor at the Wales Centre for Equity in Education, has extensive experience in teacher training and has written many books and articles on the subject of primary education. Since 2018, Russell has been working as an education inspector for the Ministry of Education in the United Arab Emirates.

Helen and Russell’s new book Tails from the Classroom: Learning and teaching through animal-assisted interventions (Crown House Publishing, 2021) is out now and is available here.

References

DfE (2017) Statutory framework for the early years foundation stage, London: DfE

Kurdek L. (2008) ‘Pet dogs as attachment figures’, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 25(2):247-266.

Laurie-Chambers, A. (2020) ‘Dogs’ Emotional Intelligence’, 16 March.

Lewis, H. and Grigg, R. (2020) Tails from the Classroom: Animal-assisted interventions in school, Carmarthen: Crown House.