Having the companionship of a loving pet can ease loneliness, reduce stress and anxiety, and bring joy to people’s lives. Add to this their inherent loyalty and an eagerness to please and it’s easy to see why certain animals are suited for service, therapy and emotional support work.
Therapy and emotional animals at school
Over many years I have had animals of all shapes and sizes in my classroom, including mice, hamsters, birds and a menagerie at home as well. Outranking all of these for suitability as an emotional support animal (ESA), is the domestic rat (fancy rats).
Rats were introduced as emotional support and therapy animals to the Marist Brothers Primary School IT Lab more than four years ago. Contrary to what people might think of rats as being unhygienic and dirty, this reputation is undeserved and unwarranted.
Although wild rats use their wits to survive in a world where people are constantly trying to kill them, their domesticated cousins are calm, loving, intelligent, clean and sociable. They are also particularly well suited as ESAs as they are:
Much more intelligent than most other animals;
Extremely clean ( providing you keep the cage clean);
Gregarious and sociable, they will be your best friend;
Love to play and learn tricks if you are willing to put the time in;
Service animals are trained specifically to help people with day-to-day tasks such as guiding a blind person, assisting a deaf person, pulling a wheelchair, opening and closing doors, carrying items. Some can even detect certain medical conditions, while others work as rescue animals to find people who are trapped under a collapsed building, for example.
Therapy animals are specially trained to bring comfort and affection to people in stressful situations. These animals are frequently found at hospitals, in schools and on-site at disaster situations. Common therapy animals are dogs, horses, cats and any number of domesticated animals. Using therapy animals improves patients’ mental, physical as well as social and emotional functioning.
An emotional support animal (ESA) is one which provides aid, comfort, support, well-being and unconditional love to someone through companionship and affection. Such animals are usually dogs and cats but may include many other animals prescribed by a physician or medical professional (birds, rabbits, hedgehogs, rats, mice, ferrets, mini pigs etc).
The response in the classroom
In general children have an instinctive love for animals and will respond positively to most animals. These children want to spend time with the animal and enjoy giving love and affection. In return they automatically sense the emotional response from the animal.
This is particularly beneficial for children with social, emotional, or psychological issues, which may cause anxiety, stress and depression. Establishing an unconditional bond with an animal makes them feel safe.
There is also the long-term life skill of caring for another living creature, which is essential for children in this often self-absorbed world in which we live. Sometimes children have had little or no interaction with animals and having them in a classroom allows them to adjust, learn about and interact, if and when they want to.
I bring “the girls” Font, Text and Type out when the children ask, if the main part of the IT lesson is over. The sheer joy and excitement on their little faces says it all: “I am happy, I have a friend, I am worthy.”
Some of the children even come back during breaks or before and after school to “check in” with the girls. Some teachers have used the girls in exam situations with the result that children who were experiencing anxiety forget about it and continue with the exam calmly. Other teachers allow children to hold the girls when their work is complete as a reward that is received with much enthusiasm.
Dr Lynn Holmes, a Doctor of Psychology who has been doing in-service training with our staff and who uses therapy animals in her practice has shown her support for therapy animals and our three girls in particular.
She says, “There is definitely evidence to say that the presence of domestic animals lowers blood pressure, stress levels and assists in trauma situations. I have found that many children with learning, emotional and behavioural difficulties often relate better to animals than people and will often open up more freely in their presence.”