How Can Animal-Assisted Therapy Impact Children with Special Educational Needs in UK Schools?

April 16, 2024

The use of animals in therapy has been a topic of interest and study for years, and its benefits continue to astound many across the globe. Dogs, in particular, have shown remarkable effectiveness as therapeutic partners. Their roles have expanded far beyond companionship and now include helping children with special educational needs in school settings. This article delves into the intricacies of animal-assisted therapy, focusing on the influence of dogs in UK schools and the resulting implications for scholars, educators, and parents alike.

The Basics of Animal-Assisted Therapy

Animal-assisted therapy leverages the natural bond between humans and animals, particularly dogs, to enhance emotional, cognitive, and social skills in individuals undergoing the intervention. The interactions between the child and the dog can range from simple companionship to more structured, goal-oriented interventions.

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The foundation of animal-assisted therapy is based on the biophilia hypothesis, which posits that humans are instinctually drawn to other living organisms. The idea is that interacting with a friendly animal can provide therapeutic benefits. In the UK, several organisations and programs incorporate dogs into their therapeutic sessions to better serve children with special educational needs.

The Power of Dogs in School Settings

England’s pet dog population is estimated to be around 9 million, according to data from Google. The prevalence of dogs is a testament to their remarkable ability to connect with humans. Dogs have a distinct sense of empathy and understanding that makes them suitable for therapeutic roles in school settings.

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In schools, these therapy dogs can participate in different interventions, ranging from improving a child’s reading ability to mitigating symptoms of anxiety. One study, for instance, reported that students who read to dogs showed significant improvement in their reading skills and self-confidence. This intervention facilitated a more relaxed learning environment, which encouraged the children to participate without the fear of making mistakes.

Animal-Assisted Therapy: Scholar Analysis from the UK Perspective

In the UK, scholars have undertaken various studies to assess the impact of animal-assisted therapy on children with special educational needs. One such study found that dog-assisted interventions significantly enhanced social skills and reduced problem behaviours among these children.

For example, one group of students received regular visits from a therapy dog for six weeks. Post-intervention analysis revealed noticeable improvements in their social interactions and emotional well-being. This group was compared with a control group that did not receive the same intervention, further solidifying the findings.

The Intervention Process: From Selection to Implementation

The process for implementing animal-assisted therapy in schools begins with the careful selection of dogs. These dogs undergo rigorous training to ensure they can handle the various situations that may arise in a school setting. They are also screened for health and temperament to ensure the safety and well-being of the students.

The intervention process is then designed around the needs of the children. This can involve one-on-one sessions or group interactions. The activities are structured to help children develop their emotional, social, and cognitive skills. For instance, a child might be guided to read to the dog, groom it, or play a game with it.

The Potential Challenges and Risks

While the potential benefits of dog-assisted therapy in schools are significant, it is crucial to also acknowledge the associated challenges and risks. Some children may have allergies or phobias related to dogs, which could limit their participation. Additionally, even the most well-trained dog might behave unpredictably in certain situations.

Moreover, the data collected from these interventions must be properly managed to ensure privacy and security. Having clear protocols for data management and ensuring everyone involved understands these protocols is paramount. However, despite these challenges, the potential benefits of animal-assisted therapy for children with special educational needs in UK schools far outweigh the risks.

In conclusion, animal-assisted therapy, particularly dog-assisted therapy, offers a unique and effective approach to supporting children with special educational needs. As more schools in the UK begin to integrate this approach into their programs, it is crucial for scholars, educators, and parents to understand how it works, its potential benefits, and the associated challenges. With the right support and implementation, animal-assisted therapy could be a game-changer in special education.

The Impact on Cortisol Levels and Stress

Animal-assisted interventions have a significant impact on cortisol levels in children with special educational needs. Cortisol, commonly referred to as the "stress hormone", tends to be higher in children who experience stress or anxiety frequently. Studies using Google Scholar and Scholar Crossref have shown that the presence of a dog during therapy can help to lower these cortisol levels, thereby reducing stress.

One study analysed the salivary cortisol levels of children with special educational needs who participated in dog-assisted therapy. The results showed a significant decrease in cortisol levels post-intervention, suggesting a reduction in stress and anxiety. These children were compared to a control group who did not participate in the dog-assisted therapy, further confirming the positive impact.

However, it is crucial to note that the reduction of stress is not solely dependent on the decrease in cortisol levels. The human-animal bond formed during these sessions also plays a crucial role. The companionship and empathy provided by the therapy dogs create a soothing environment, helping the children feel safe, accepted, and loved.

Other factors that contribute to this calming effect include the dog’s non-judgmental nature, their ability to provide unconditional love, and their sensitivity to human emotions. These characteristics make dogs suitable for therapeutic roles, and their presence can significantly improve the emotional well-being of children with special educational needs.

How Animal-Assisted Education is Changing Special Needs Education in the UK

The integration of animal-assisted therapy into the special educational needs (SEN) sector in the UK has shown promising results. In a study conducted on children aged between 6-14 years, the group that interacted with the therapy dog demonstrated noticeable improvements in their social-emotional skills when compared to the control group.

The study also revealed the positive influence of dog-assisted education on the child’s learning experience. The presence of the dog in the learning environment had a calming effect, thereby enhancing the child’s focus, attention, and willingness to participate in learning activities. The positive impact was not only seen in the classroom but also in the child’s general behaviour and interaction with others.

The success of animal-assisted education in the UK has encouraged other schools around the country to consider integrating this approach into their programs. In fact, schools that have implemented dog-assisted interventions have reported an overall improvement in the school environment, stating that it has not only benefited the children with SEN but also the staff and other students.

However, it is important to remember that the success of animal-assisted therapy in each school will depend on the structure and implementation of the program. Each child’s needs are unique, and the therapy should be tailored to meet these individual needs.


The impact of animal-assisted therapy in special education cannot be overstated. The influence of dogs in schools, particularly in supporting children with special educational needs, is proving to be transformative. From enhancing social-emotional skills to reducing stress levels, the benefits are manifold.

However, it is crucial to acknowledge the potential challenges and risks involved. Allergies, phobias, and potential unpredictable behaviour of the dog are factors that need to be managed effectively. With the right protocols in place, the potential benefits can far outweigh these challenges.

The growing body of research supporting the effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy, particularly in the UK, is encouraging. As more schools integrate this approach, it will be interesting to observe its evolution and the long-term benefits it presents for children with special educational needs.

Animal-assisted therapy indeed has the potential to revolutionise special education, offering a unique, effective, and compassionate approach to teaching and learning. The continued research and implementation of this approach will undoubtedly contribute to a more inclusive, supportive, and effective educational experience for all children.