Author: Annie Petersen, Ed.D.
People of all ages have had experiences with animals. The love for a pet holds no cultural or generational boundaries. Historically, animals have been regarded as deserving of the highest levels of esteem and have held the lowest levels of caste: the creatures to be pitied. Regardless of one’s opinion or regard for animals, they have held prominence within society around the world and have the capacity to greatly influence people’s daily lives.
Humans can acknowledge their likenesses with animals. The search for comfort, protection, and a means of survival is innate among all living beings. Human dependence on animals for survival and comfort can be seen on the ancient cave drawings of Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain, which were created over 20,000 years ago.
Although many people have had experiences with animals, most of which have been positive, there are few tactile experiences students have had unless those animals live in their own homes. The results of those first-time experiences, with a well-intentioned parent, may be positive. However, the quest for parents to give their children the “experience” of caring for a pet may not always end up positive for the pet himself.
What better place to introduce children to appropriate hands-on experiences with animals than with a humane educator or trained teacher in general classroom environments? Programs that partner companion animals with their daily curriculum can result in an extraordinarily positive experience for both animal and student. Most importantly, is the incorporatation of another strategy to engage children and increasing animal caretaking skills through practice. The encouragement of educators to utilize more companion animals in the learning environment could expand knowledge of proper pet care, humane treatment of animals, and positive interpersonal relations irrespective of cultural influences.
In 2008, I conducted a study for the completion of my doctorate in education, introducing companion animals (dogs, rats, rabbits, and guinea pigs) into the classroom environment with seventh grade students at William Howard Taft Middle School in San Diego, California. The purpose of the study was to examine the difference that animal interactions may have on the reading comprehension skills of students in the seventh grade before their twice-annual Degrees of Reading Power test. Group 1 students had animal interaction experiences while Group 2 students did not have the animal interaction experiences. Two classes of similar population, age group, and grade were included in the study. Group 1 was comprised of 29 seventh grade students. These students received animal interaction experiences for approximately 20 minutes each school day, for five days. Students in this group received the animal interaction experience during the week immediately preceding the administration of their test. Group 2 was composed of 26 seventh grade students. These students did not receive animal interaction experiences before the test.
Taft Middle School was chosen due to its diverse community of students. In the field of humane education it has been observed that behaviors or attitudes towards animals, especially specific dog breeds, may be modeled by family members and peers. Taft Middle School is represented by several first and second generation ethnic groups, including Filipino, Vietnames, and Chinese students. However, Hispanic/Latino students formed the largest group of study participants. Many of the students had been exposed to dog fighting and dogs as “protection” in their neighborhoods. It was not uncommon for them to see dogs, especially pit bulls, as threats and rats as vermin.
On the first day of the study many of the students demonstrated an aversion to certain animals (rats) and certain dog breeds (pit bulls). As part of the study, the students were encouraged to interact with all of the animals, but personal feelings were respected if a student chose not to interact with a specific animal. Therefore, when the pit bull entered the room, three students’ express desire to leave was respected. However, when the same dog returned to the classroom 2 days later, the students who had left previously chose to stay that time. The dog’s handler noted that other students had complimented the dog for his good behavior and happy demeanor. Perhaps the peer reinforcement received by the fearful students influenced their decision to stay and participate in a new experience; an experience they would not have had if a dog had not been present.
At the end of they study, individual student responses indicated that the students who participated in the animal interaction experiences reported a difference in their enjoyment and attitudes toward school while participating in this study. These responses were communicated in a commemorative book and slide show that were presented to the researcher on the last day of the study. The following statements were excerpts from letters written by study participants.
I can’t wait to come to school every day and meet the animals. This experience has been awesome, I will remember this for a long time.
I thought this experience was great . .. this was a wonderful opportunity for us to interact with these different types of animals.
I also liked the animals . . . they were fun to have in the classroom.
Thank you for coming to our special classroom. I felt awesome that you came.
My classmates were grateful because the dogs were so cool.
Thank you very much for the experience that you gave me because I know that my mom and dad would have never got a opportunity like this before in their life and I am sure that when I have my children I know that I will never have a opportunity like this [for them] especially in school.
Due to district policy, the animal interactions could only be conducted for 20 minutes over a five day time period which resulted in no significantly measurable outcomes, specifically in reading comprehension. The results had more of a qualitative impact as exhibited through the above student comments. However, other studies have shown evidence regarding the impact that animal interaction experiences have on the psyche of children. Levinson (1962) indicated that children who have animals present are more apt to communicate in stressful situations. Chandler (2011) suggested that students who had consistent animal interaction experiences were more inclined to exhibit compassionate behavior toward others.
The diversity of the student population continues to grow and so does the diversity of the educators and instructional strategies. Districts and teachers are always in search of various strategies improve achievement, and exposure to animals may be an effective strategy to engage students in learning. There is a need for funding to be able to continue to conduct further research that measure the effectiveness of direct (hands-on) animal experiences; one that is longer than five days. An in-depth assessment of of the effectiveness of animal interaction experiences could result in an increase of public and private sectors for these types of programs and an increased appreciation for animals in the classroom and humane education program educators. As rapidly as communities transform and shape themselves to fit into the rest of world society, so must the educational institutions within those societies. It is imperative that educational institutions demonstrate a basic knowledge of their communities and establish groundwork in order to keep up with these changes. This should include developing a strategic plan to incorporate companion animals into the learning environment. This plan could include budgetary processes and program evaluation that would involve a school district’s community of staff, parents and committee members to implement and support the plan. Strategic plan goals should encompass both student achievement and appropriate management to promote successful program implementation. By incorporating various strategies and means of understanding, the advanced, average, and at-risk student will benefit from the mission of education to help produce a community with the basic knowledge they need for their pets.
Included with the various strategies to improve student achievement is the incorporation of companion animals in the classroom; inclusion of companion animals in the classroom has an influence on students. On a qualitative level, this was evidenced by student comments and participation during this study. Students who had shown fear or aversion to certain animals and certain dog breeds at the beginning of the study were more inclined at the end of the study to interact with the animals. Most importantly, they looked forward to coming to school and participating in the class activities.
Mahatma Gandhi wrote, “The greatness of a nation and its moral process may be judged by the way its animals are treated.” When educators integrate companion animals into their lessons while educating students, they are teaching far more than testing skills and academic success; they are also teaching life skills and attitudes. Educators’ partnerships with companion animals can be a powerful tool to inspire and engage students.
This article was written for The Packrat newsletter Spring 2012. For more information on The Packrat (the official newsletter for the Association for Humane Educators) contact http://www.aphe.org