We’ve all heard about the benefits of pet therapy for those who are sick, in the hospital or just lonely. Recent studies show that pet therapy can have the same effects on students, whether at home or in educational settings, as it does in health care settings: improved energy levels, increased self-esteem, heightened moods and even decreases in depression.

Phillip Potenziano, superintendent of the Brunswick School Department.

According to The Conversation, a nonprofit, independent news organization that publishes articles by academic experts, it’s all in the science. For example, therapy dogs can reduce stress-inducing cortisol levels and increase oxytocin, a hormone that increases trust, empathy and social bonding. The result? Pets/pet therapy can bolster a student’s outlook and confidence and directly affect a student’s ability to learn. For example, pet therapy can:

• Increase movement. From walking a dog to cleaning the hamster cage or the goldfish bowl, these activities keep kids on the move, stave off boredom and instill a sense of responsibility.
• Improve verbal communications. Imagine a child who is frustrated with a particularly challenging homework assignment taking a break and discussing their frustrations with their pet.
• Reduce stress. Research has shown therapy dogs can provide a sense of connection in tricky situations.
• Instill empathy and social and interpersonal skills. Animals need attention, love, food and care – just like we do. Children who have a pet at home that requires care and attention can learn to better tune in to the needs of others.
• Improve motor skills. For younger children, petting and handling animals can teach dexterity, which can translate into better handwriting skills.
• Increase interest in school. Having the support of a pet at home, sometimes just to talk to, can make school more appealing. This can lead to increased school attendance, gains in confidence and improved motivation, resulting in better learning outcomes.

The research is so compelling that many universities offer animal therapy programs on their campuses, particularly during the week of final exams and other well-documented times of student stress.

Unfortunately, not every home can manage a pet, but there are other ways students can enjoy the benefits of pet therapy. For example, a neighbor’s dog might enjoy an extra walk after school or the cat next door would probably like some extra playtime or cuddling. Also, most animal shelters have short-term foster programs – a win/win for both the animal and the family – and most shelters welcome after-school or weekend volunteers.

Believe it or not, research shows that even stuffed or mechanical/robot animals can mimic the benefits of a real pet, and there are even “virtual pet therapy” sites where students and families can visit with a pet online. (Check out petpartners.org to learn more.)

Pets come in all sizes, shapes, breeds, species. Dogs and cats, of course, but also rabbits, reptiles, Guinea pigs, mice, ferrets and more. Our local shelter, Midcoast Humane, is an excellent resource for pet owners, aspiring pet owners and animal lovers in our communities. They might just have some ideas about pet therapy to fit your lifestyle that could benefit animals and humans alike!

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