"What is man without beasts? If all the beasts were gone, men would die from great loniliness of spirit, for whatever happens to the beast also happens to man. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the son of the earth."
-Chief Seattle of the Duwamish Tribe, State of Washington, 1855
Eric was sexually molested by his father when he was six years old. His father was convicted of the crime and went to prison for two years. When Dad was released, he wanted to try a relationship with his son again. The Court said yes, but only if the visits were supervised by a professional agency. Eric and his Mom were both frightened about the visitations, wondering what it would be like, how awkward and difficult it could be, and whether Eric would feel safe. But this family was lucky. The program they were referred to, the Griffin & Wong Institute, has an animal-assisted children's program which utilizes the natural bond between children and animals to aid them in navigating the difficult situations and circumstances in their closest relationships.
Eric's Mom brought him to the Institute for The Turtle Tour prior to the first scheduled visit with his father. Eric had the chance to get to know the facility and meet all of the animals. This child's relaxation and easing of tension was clearly visible as he interacted with the Mom and baby rats; Black Feather, a baby San Diego desert Tortoise; and Stumpy, a wounded and rehabilitated iguana. When the day came for the first visit with Dad, Eric was able to use his own knowledge of the Institute and the animals to help him feel empowered. The child initially appeared nervous and had a hard time looking at Dad. Each time the father moved physically close, Eric withdrew. Then, Eric asked the supervisor if he could show his Dad the baby and mother rats.
The resulting interaction was touching, and familiar to the staff at the Institute. The baby rats provided an unlimited source of interesting, warm, and intriguing interactional opportunities between son and father. Eric's sense of fear evaporated as he gently, softly, and quietly watched and played with the baby rats, with his father. Gradually, Eric began to engage with his father through comments and observations about the animals. His father responded, naturally allowing Eric to lead the interaction.
This visit between Eric and his father illustrates some important findings from research into animal/human relationships. A number of studies suggest that the presence of an animal can reduce stress and anxiety and promote a feeling of safety, whether or not the threat an individual senses is real. Randall Lockwood, of the State University of New York, asked two groups of subjects to interpret ambiguous line drawings of social interactions. One group included an animal; the other did not. His results indicated that the presence of the animal leads to the interpretation of social scenes as less threatening and improves the perceived character of the people associated with them. A person with a dog, thus, is considered more approachable and less dangerous than someone without one.
We know that stress is one
of the greatest contributors to emotional and social adjustment
for all children. If we look specifically at children living in
chaotic family situations, and/or children with learning
difficulties, including those born drug-effected, we see even
more profound effects created by even ordinary daily stressors. A
researcher named Friedmann measured the blood pressure and heart
beats of 38 children over two 4-minute periods during which the
child was asked to rest for 2 minutes and to read aloud for 2
minutes. A dog was present during either the rest or reading
period. The researchers found that the presence of the dog
resulted in lower blood pressures during both the rest and
reading period. Additionally, if the dog was present at the
beginning of the session, the children had lower blood pressures
throughout the experiment.
Animals help children strengthen their contact with the environment. This is a particularly helpful response to utilize when we are working with challenging children. One study conducted by the American Humane Education Society (AHES) in Framingham Center, Massachusetts used animals in the classroom as part of educational modules on health, nutrition, grooming, association, communication and appropriate behavior. The follow-up measures were completed by the regular classroom teachers who reported that not one student who participated in the special animal-assisted educational program was completely unaffected by the program.
A minimum of forty percent of one class to a maximum of 100 percent of another class were judged by their teachers to have learned and retained specific information which corresponded to the AHES unit goals. A minimum of one-half of one class to 100 percent of the other two classes were judged to have gained general understandings and developed new attitudes. Teachers cited sensitivity to animals, understanding animal needs, ability to relate to an unfamiliar instructor and sensitivity to people among the understandings and attitudes accrued during the course.
Integrating animals into the learning situation is easy and beneficial. Love, compassion and empathy are vital concepts for challenged children. Animals bring these concepts alive in a compelling manner that truly maximizes learning by tapping into the natural responses inherent in the child/animal bond. It's like magic to watch what happens as children who are violent, enraged, and/or depressed begin to freely interact with horses in the animal-assisted program. The children initially return the nuzzling of the gentle horses and, within a matter of minutes, happily, enthusiastically and confidently initiate petting, grooming and feeding.
If you would like to experiment with animals in the classroom, contact a local program that offers this service. Some examples in San Diego County include: Helen Woodward Foundation; Cruizin' Critters; the San Diego Humane Society; and the Griffin & Wong Institute. The experience of warm and positive interaction is vital to the classroom experience. Here's a natural, inexpensive and readily available way to create the opportunity.
Copyright © 1996