WATCH: UBCO therapy dogs help kids learn social skills

A new study from the university explores how children react to social training with therapy dogs

Therapy dogs not only help with emotional well-being, they also help children be more engaged in their social circles.

That’s the finding from a recent study out of the University of BC’s Okanagan campus.

“Dog lovers often have an assumption that canine-assisted interventions are going to be effective because other people are going to love dogs,” the study’s lead researcher Nicole Harris said.

“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.”

Twenty-two children from the Okanagan Boys and Girls Clubs participated in the study. They took part in sessions to help build their social skills over six weeks. Over the course of the study, the children were accompanies by therapy dogs from UBCO’s Building Academic Retention through K9s (BARK) program as they completed lessons.

The children learned a new social skill each week, including introducing themselves or giving directions to someone else. They first practiced with their assigned therapy dog and then with the rest of their group mates. In the final phase of the study, the children, along with their therapy dog and volunteer handler, practiced their newly learned social skills with the university skills in the building.

“Therapy dogs are often able to reach children and faciloitate their growth in surprising ways,” BARK director Dr. John-Tyler Binfet said.

“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 alongside the dogs.”

Harris’s team found that “canine-awssisted social and emotional learning initiatives can provide unique advantages”, adding that the children’s moods improved and they were more engaged with their lessons. The children also behaved better at the sessions with the therapy dogs than when they’re at their regular after-school care program.

Once the six week study was over, Harris interviewed eight children, aged five to 11.

“Each child indicated the social skill-training program was an enjoyable and positive experience and the dogs were a meaningful and essential part of the program.”

The children added that the dogs helped with their emotional well-being and helped them learn to be more responsible.

“Dogs have the ability to provide many stress-reducing and confidence-boosting benefits to children,” Harris said.

“It was really heartwarming to see the impact the program had on the kids.”

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Twila Amato
Video journalist, Black Press Okanagan
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