The benefit of dogs among sick people has been widely researched, and a growing body of research supports their value in places like hospitals, where dogs have been shown to promote healing in patients suffering a wide range of conditions, from cancer to PTSD. But not much research has been done to show their benefit in a place that, for kids living in at-risk communities, can also be a source of trauma: the classroom.
The O’Farrell Charter School in San Diego — highlighted in an essay on Medium earlier this week — is taking a step toward fixing that by employing Sejera, a new resident dog to help students who are having a hard time in class, emotionally and behaviorally.
Sejera is a facility dog. She went through two years of training with Paws’itive Teams, an organization that trains dogs to provide comfort in frightening and traumatic situations. Extensive evidence has shown that stress — like living in an abusive home or a violent neighborhood — renders a child physically incapable of absorbing lessons when he steps into the classroom. For many of the students at O’Farrell, that sort of trauma clouds their everyday lives.
But since Sejera came along, a student exhibiting the effects of at-home stress in the classroom can go down to the office to play or cuddle with the dog. And in many cases, administrators have found kids talking to Sejera — lifting her ear and whispering to her their deepest feelings and fears. For them, Sejera is an unbiased listener and a friend; she makes them feel safe and not alone.
While solid research on the benefit of dogs in the classroom is still scarce, the findings that have been reported are promising: reduced stress in children who interacted with the dog. A few dedicated advocates and schools like O’Farrell are pushing for more research and funding.
If nothing else, having Sejera has provided an additional level of incentive for kids, who otherwise may not get it at home, to perform well in school.
“Sejera motivates us,” said one of the students. “If we do a great job we can visit Sejera, so we do our best because we want to see her.” Another student, who Medium quoted saying she was “scared and felt terrible” after a car crash, wrote that after her teacher let her go see Sejera, “I wasn’t scared anymore.”