Therapy dogs in schools: what exactly do they do?

September 1, 2023 - 6 min read
African-American and Caucasian boy reading in the library with a therapy dog, a goldendoodle. He is sitting cross-legged on the floor, looking down at the book that he is holding. The trainer, a mature woman in her 50s, is smiling, talking to the child, pointing to the book, and the dog is lying down between them, watching.

Pencils, desks, chalkboards... paws? Everyone knows US education is an ever-evolving beast. But few developments have been more surprising — or more cuddly — than canine counselors taking American classrooms by storm.

Dogs possess a unique ability to offer comfort, alleviate stress, and keep students compassionately engaged with their environment. Therapy dogs create an atmosphere of engagement, social interaction, and emotional support.

But who actually supplies these pups to schools around the nation? Indeed, you might be wondering, “Can MY dog be a school therapy dog?”

Maybe! And if so, your four-legged friend might play a pivotal role in shaping the well-being and educational experience of numerous students.

Let’s dive in.

What Are School Therapy Dogs?

School therapy dogs are specially trained canines that work alongside educators and students to create a positive and supportive learning environment. It’s their job to help alleviate stress, offer emotional comfort, and promote a sense of security among students. 

Sure, guidance counselors have their roles too, but they tend to be far less adorable.

School therapy dog programs trace their roots back to the broader field of animal-assisted therapy. As early as the 1960s, pioneers like Boris Levinson and Konrad Lorenz began recognizing the profundity of the human-animal bond, and began incorporating animals into therapeutic settings. And by the 1990s, some educators were starting to introduce dogs to school programs.

Took them long enough!

As the years have passed, research has demonstrated that school therapy dogs can reduce stress, boost academic engagement, and improve student attitudes about learning. Interestingly enough, higher education has been especially enthusiastic: More than 60 percent of colleges currently have a pet therapy program.

But the K-12 crowd has also gotten the message, as the practice has gained widespread acceptance and recognition across the country, and among students of all ages. So how can you participate in these powerful programs?

Female woman working with her dog during therapy dog

Qualities of a Good School Therapy Dog?

Before you even think about registering your pup as a therapy dog, you need to run through a checklist of specific qualities that can help you determine whether they’re suitable for the role.

Calm Temperament

School therapy dogs must be calm, gentle, and patient, as they’ll need to interact with a diverse range of students, each with unique needs and tendencies. Dogs who naturally gravitate toward human affection — and who don’t get overwhelmed or feisty when surrounded or touched by multiple people at once — are likeliest to thrive. They should exude a sense of relaxation and self-control, which will hopefully be infectious.

Properly Socialized

Your dog should be well-socialized, which usually means they’ve been exposed to lots of different people (including children) since puppyhood. They should be calm in the face of crowds and changing environments. A poorly socialized pup won’t foster a sense of safety or trust among students.

Obedient and Responsive

School therapy programs need dogs with good manners. This means they don’t jump, lunge, or bark excessively. They should also be able to respond promptly and reliably to commands, which will ensure their interactions are both enriching and controlled.

Low-Shedding Coats

Schools love it when dogs have hypoallergenic coats, or at least low-shedding ones. School custodians prefer classrooms that aren’t covered with hair. But perhaps more importantly, a low-shedding dog alleviates allergy concerns. It also protects against hair-covered clothing — a very stressful prospect for any student in school. To put this more simply, low-shedding dogs create a more inclusive, comfortable, and interactive environment for students and educators. No matter how hypoallergenic your dog is, good grooming is crucial to positive student engagement.

Keep in mind that this is just a basic checklist. Before your dog can be considered for a school therapy program, they’ll need to be prepared.

Happy woman with black hair wearing sweater with her goldendoodle therapy dog in library

Therapy Dog Training Schools

Before your dog can become a valued member of a school therapy dog program, they’ll need to undergo a therapy-specific training program. A number of different accredited animal therapy organizations can help dogs get up to speed, including:

Some programs and organizations may have specific requirements for dogs who enter school settings. As just one example, the non-profit org New York Therapy Animals requires a 7-week training program before therapy dogs can be considered for schools. 

Training will encompass things like behavior, obedience, socialization, and stress-management, all of which contribute to your dog's effectiveness in supporting students.

You’ll also need to provide the school with any relevant health screenings, vaccination records, or other documents they request.

How Do School Therapy Dogs Help Kids?

So what actually happens in school therapy dog sessions?

It varies. Generally, a trained therapy dog, accompanied by a handler, will engage with students in a controlled and supportive environment. Whether it’s gentle petting or simply serving as a reassuring presence, therapy dogs provide emotional comfort and enhance school engagement.

In some cases, a dog may accompany students while they do something specific, like reading. This can help students learn to feel more comfortable with an academic task that usually fills them with stress or anxiety.

An environmental shot of an art therapy session taking place outdoors, with the art therapist or caregiver, the girl with a mental disability, and a dog, surrounded by nature and natural elements, with a sense of relaxation and tranquility in the composition

Research has shown that school therapy dogs can reduce the stress hormone cortisol and boost academic focus. In the process, they relieve anxiety and heighten students’ motivation to participate in learning activities. In one study, a group of elementary-aged students with emotional and behavioral disabilities didn’t gain the confidence to read out loud until therapy dogs were present!

And is any of this all that surprising? Dogs are renowned stress relievers. And ask yourself: If your school had let you indulge in regularly-scheduled dog-a-thons, wouldn’t your affection for all things scholastic have surged?

Keep in mind that, as a therapy dog handler, you’ll be responsible for ensuring the safety of any participating students and educators. At the outset, you’ll need to verbally convey clear guidelines for all human-canine interactions.

Make sure your students engage in appropriate behavior, like speaking softly, approaching calmly, and touching gently. As the dog’s handler, there’s a good chance you’ll need to step in from time to time if you observe students ignoring your instructions.

Establishing and enforcing these guidelines not only keeps students safe, but it also sets the stage for respectful and enjoyable interactions.

Challenges of Therapy Dogs in Schools

Some school therapy programs are better-organized than others. A well-structured therapy program should involve regularly scheduled visits. These visits create anticipation among students and provide them with a sense of stability and consistency. They can even be tailored to address very specific goals, like promoting social-emotional learning or reading skills.

Research has found that well-structured animal therapy programs are FAR more beneficial to students than poorly-structured ones. If the program you’re involved in is a well-oiled machine, wonderful! But if it’s not, you may see relatively limited results, which can be frustrating. Just do your best.

You’ll also deal with some immediate, practical challenges, like student allergies. (Learn all the students’ allergies ahead of time, and keep your dog well groomed!) 

You’ll also need to learn how to manage a wide variety of potential interactions with students, some of whom may be struggling with emotional challenges and may not be adept at properly interacting with a dog. Firmly navigate away from improper interactions, but don’t become angry.

Finally, remember that this is no casual volunteer gig. From training to in-school sessions, handling a school therapy dog is a major time commitment.

A group of elementary age children are playing with a golden retriever outside at the park.

Actually, it’s possible to volunteer your dog to a therapy organization without actually being their handler. So if your pup radiates a therapeutic presence but you have constraints on your time, contact a therapy organization and see if they’d like to pair your dog with a handler.

Benefits of Therapy Dogs in Schools

The benefits are fairly straightforward.

Volunteering your dog for a school therapy program is immensely beneficial to students. In some cases, these are children who have struggled to overcome academic or emotional challenges through other types of programs. You’ll be helping them. That’s incredibly gratifying.

And if you’ve read this far, what’s stopping you?

How ManyPets Insurance + Wellness Can Help

Simply put, your dog won’t be allowed through the doors of any school until they’re up-to-date on their vaccinations. Many programs will also require a health-check certification from your veterinarian.

The ManyPets Wellness Plan can help reimburse you for preventative care, including vaccinations and wellness exams. The ManyPets Wellness Plan is not an insurance product but rather an optional reimbursement plan that you may purchase in addition to insurance.

It’s a perfect complement to the ManyPets dog insurance policy, which can reimburse you for veterinary care related to an accident or illness.

David Teich
Lead Editor

David oversees content strategy and development at ManyPets. As Lead Editor, he focuses on delivering accurate information related to pet care and insurance. David’s editorial background spans more than a decade, including a pivotal role at Digiday, where he wrote content and managed relationships with media and tech companies. As an Associate Editor at Cynopsis Media, David wrote the Cynopsis Digital newsletter and interviewed executives and digital marketing experts in the TV industry. His background also includes film journalism. His diverse experiences in journalism and marketing underpins his role in shaping content within the pet care industry.