Working with young children and dogs
Planning and preparing for successful animal-assisted interactions in the early years
Guest Blog: Dr Helen Lewis
I am an animal lover and have been for as long as I can remember. My childhood was spent enjoying the company of a variety of animals, from newts and frogs to rabbits, horses and dogs. I know that I am not alone. Animals are special, familiar and important to many young children. In fact, even if they do not share their home with a real animal, they will meet all kinds from The Gruffalo to Paddington Bear through stories, television, film and toys. Indeed, many of the much-loved characters in children’s favourite stories are animals. Wilson (1984) suggests that we have an innate fascination with the natural world, and in this blog, I discuss how practitioners can build upon this natural curiosity in their settings.
Animals feature within early educational theories and approaches. For example, the eighteenth-century philosopher Rousseau suggested that young children have a deep connection with the natural world (Rousseau, in Bloom 1997), whilst Steiner emphasised the importance of allowing children the opportunity to see the beauty of animals (The Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship, 2009). Animals such as fish, hamsters or African Land Snails have appeared in settings for many years, and I can remember fish, gerbils and axolotl in the classrooms of my childhood.
Animals provide multisensory learning experiences – young children can explore a variety of textures, smells, sounds and colours when interacting with animals. Children can learn about life cycles, and can sort, organise and compare different creatures. The presence of an animal can provide a stimulus for conversation, crucial in the development of oracy skills. Children learn to nurture and empathise when caring for animals, they can take comfort from their presence and can be motivated to find 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 that 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 (Lewis and Grigg, 2021). Whatever the species, it is crucial that practitioners carefully consider, plan and prepare to meet their welfare needs when planning to bring them into their settings. For example, many small ‘pocket pets’ such as hamsters and guinea pigs are prey animals and so must have a quiet space to withdraw to and hide should they wish. Many species such as rabbits are highly social but need to live in bonded pairs or groups. So, in my mind, we must also think about what the animal gains from their experiences too.
It is important to be aware that many organisations such as the RSPCA do not recommend live animals in classrooms, and it is true that robotic animals, digital apps and other media can provide alternative approaches if a suitable classroom environment and living conditions cannot be assured. Children can be shown clips on social media to illustrate dogs’ social and emotional intelligence which can prompt discussion about how to be a good friend or about what it means to learn. Using an app to give an animal a voice can offer the opportunity to explore some real-life situations, for example during the 2020 lockdown one teacher created a talking dog to check in on children on a weekly basis.
There has been a recent increase in the number of dogs becoming involved in educational contexts. In fact, in our recent surveys of over 1200 educators, dogs featured most frequently as the species involved in interactions with children in educational settings. This is perhaps because of their sociability, adaptability, playfulness and enduring bond with humans. Dogs are typically highly attuned to people and are usually eager to please. They are also perhaps more suitable for young children to interact with than smaller species who may be nocturnal, prone to nip or scratch, or too quick and agile to handle easily.
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. Although we are seeing a growth in the number of schools where dogs belong to staff members and are so in schools throughout the week, it is often a good idea initially to contact organisations who will bring a visiting dog to your setting for an hour or so at a time. These organisations assess the temperament of the dog and provide training and insurance for the dog and owner before they start coming into a setting, and this may work more effectively for busy educators.
If you do decide that you can meet an animal’s needs appropriately within your setting, the principles that underpin the Early Years Foundation Stage (ie children are unique, they learn through forming positive relationships, in enabling environments and in different ways and at different rates DfE, 2017) are useful to consider. These broadly underpin other curricula (in the UK and internationally) and can relate to how we establish and manage effective AAIs in our settings. The most effective AAIs are built on positive, mutually beneficial partnerships and relationships between humans and animals.
Figure 1. Pedagogical principles, adapted from the Early Years Foundation Stage for AAIs (Lewis and Grigg, 2021)
So – how might these principles work if a dog is involved?
Respect everyone’s feelings, spaces and thoughts
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 and was the first to pass animal welfare reforms in the nineteenth century and presently the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill is working on its way through parliament. This is a formal acknowledgement that animals, like us, are aware of their feelings and emotions.
Respect means allowing dogs to be themselves rather than seeing them as resources. When a dog enters a setting, it is required to deal with potentially overwhelming sensory experiences and needs to be highly adaptable. Dogs do not have a choice in whether they are present in a school environment, but it is important that educators recognise their sentience. As well as catering for their basic welfare needs, we must ensure that their interactions with children enrich the dogs’ lives too, and that means knowing them as individuals. Although there are breed types (for example many retrievers like to carry objects in their mouths) all dogs have their own personality, likes and dislikes. This means getting to know the dog as an individual and having a plan in place if the dog indicates that it does not want to join in with a planned activity – for example by having a stuffed toy dog on standby.
Young children should be helped to learn to read and respect a dog’s body language. Any signal from the dog must always be interpreted in a 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, or an appeasement signal when the dog feels anxious.
So, before I take one of my dogs into a setting, I would visit and work with the children, talking about dogs, sorting pictures of dogs into ‘happy’ and ‘sad’ categories, discussing what they thought dogs in different postures were trying to say. We would think about what they might do to help a dog who was looking sad or scared. We would play with stuffed toy dogs to practice standing still like a statue and using their quiet voices ready to meet my dog. We talk about how to approach a dog safely after asking the owner ‘please’ (‘Pat, Pet, Pause’). We might draw some pictures of dogs or talk about any dogs we know in our own families.
These activities prepare children for safe real-time interactions and support wider conversations about feelings and emotions. It is vital to avoid a situation where a dog is forced to interact, and it is tolerating (because it is well-trained and eager to please) the situation rather than enjoying it.
Build positive relationships
The success of AAIs rests on the quality of relationships between children, adults and animals. Successful relationships are based on values such as care, kindness and connection. Dogs can act as a non-judgemental friends and Kurdek (2008) suggests that young children respond positively to the security and proximity of dogs. 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 their 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 developing fine and gross motor skills and coordination as they gently groomed her, clipped on her lead and walked her around the playground. This also led to opportunities for authentic conversations about things the children wanted to know more about Honey with her owner.
Create opportunities for playful interaction
Dogs are social beings, just like children and adults. They enjoy playing and having fun, and for children and dogs, play promotes learning. 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 recognise 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. Play helps dogs’ mental health and enable strong bonds to form (Van Fleet and Faa-Thompson, 2017). 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. 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.
Ensure that the environment is safe for all
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. Both children and practitioners need to recognise and respect the uniqueness of each animal. Within dog breeds, there are individual dogs who are calm and others more boisterous, and all will have different preferences, just like children. Careful thought needs to be given to selecting the right dog for any intervention and expert advice should always be sought. We also need to recognise the unique factors of any environment. These will be very different to the dog’s home environment and care must be taken not to overwhelm them with new sights, sounds and smells. 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 hypoallergenic dog (although some breeds may not moult many people with allergies are actually allergic to dander rather than fur itself), so health issues may be a problem. Clear communication with parents, staff and children is essential, as is a careful risk assessment. Any animal and any child can be unpredictable. In our most recent survey, we have found that practitioners need to prepare for the unexpected – even the best trained and mild-mannered dog can bark, toilet or jump up whilst in school. Many organisations working with dogs in schools recommend that the dog is at least 18 months old before they begin interacting with children in an educational setting, and many also expect the dog to have lived with their handler for at least a year. Having a first aid kit on hand for the animal is also important.
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, enriching and enjoyable for children, adults and the animal themselves.
These four principles aim to nurture compassion and respect for all living beings. In my most recently published book Tails from the Classroom, co-authored with Dr Russell Grigg, we provide case studies of settings and schools that have demonstrated these principles in action. Bringing animals into early years’ settings is not a decision to be taken lightly, it can add extra pressure to an already busy workload, however, the benefits can be well worth the effort. Following the four principles in this blog will help ensure that the interests, wellbeing and engagement of all involved are upheld.
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.
Lewis, H (2021) How School Pets Can Help Children Learn and Read The Conversation available at https://theconversation.com/how-school-pets-can-help-children-to-learn-and-read-160064
Lewis, H. and Grigg, R. (2020) Tails from the Classroom: Animal-assisted interventions in school, Carmarthen: Crown House.
Lewis, H and Grigg, R (2021) Animals in Early Years settings Early Education.
Van Fleet, R., Faa-Thompson, T. (2017) Animal Assisted Play Therapy. Professional Resource Press, Florida.
Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia. Harvard University Press.