The importance of human-animal interactions to the healthy development of youngsters has been highlighted in a British study.
Researchers with Northumbria University explored children’s relationships with a classroom dog named Ted and older adolescents’ relationship with a companion horse named Henry.
Donna Carlyle and Pamela Graham, who are in the university’s Department of Social Work, Education and Community Well-Being, said the horse and dog research pulled together for their paper were found to share striking common ground.
“We have offered an alternative perspective on why human-animal interactions are fundamental to both species,” the pair wrote in the open-access journal Animals.
“The activation of caregiving skills in the children and young people by Ted and Henry is a noteworthy outcome, which is of mutual benefit to both species.
“The potential of human-animal interactions to therefore increase empathy in children and young people could also impact their self-esteem and well-being, for multi-species well-being.”
Carlyle and Graham said children’s beneficial relationships with animals are well known. Companion animals, particularly dogs, have become an integral part of family life and children’s material culture.
However, aside from the proven physiological benefits, there is little research about what children say about their relationships with animals and how they describe them.
“Dogs in schools are fast becoming a trend in helping to support and enhance children’s learning as well as their social and emotional well-being. Studies have shown that the very presence of a dog can increase children’s concentration, executive function and behaviour,” the pair said.
In addition, equine therapy is gaining momentum, with studies showing noteworthy benefits to children and young people.
“However, the lack of children’s voices means that the mechanisms for these benefits are comparatively unknown and unclear.”
The dog-related research was carried out in a North East England Primary School, over two phases, with Year 4 (aged 7 and 8 years) and Year 6 (aged 10 and 11 years) children (60 in total) and their classroom dog, Ted.
The children have grown up alongside Ted, a springer spaniel, and he has been in the school setting since he was a puppy. He is now three years old.
Ted joined the school after a landslide victory in a mock election that took place when the children were learning about democracy and voted to get a school dog.
The head teacher honoured the vote and the school carefully planned Ted’s introduction into the setting. He has become an integral part of the children’s learning community, joining in school life as he wishes, such as lessons, reading time, play activities and sharing time with staff in their offices.
Ted is cared for by his class teacher, and returns home with them at the end of every school day. Ted is free to move around the classroom and the children are assigned care duties.
The researchers learned about their relationship with Ted through a series of workshop activities, with creative multiple media used to elicit the children’s voices about their interactions with Ted.
Henry is described as a companion horse. He is a key participant in a programme in which young people discover what can be learned from horses about communication as they learn to ride and care for them.
The horse phase of the study involved two separate groups of young people aged between 16 and 19 who were excluded from mainstream education and identified as vulnerable due to perceived behavioural, social or emotional difficulties.
This study phase used mixed methods to gather and examine data from focus groups, interviews and statistics using the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale.
The authors noted that, in horse-human encounters, horses instinctively recognise authenticity. Horses tune in to emotional and tactile cues that may be transmitted by humans through different channels: voice, posture, expression and pheromones.
“What we observed in our separate research studies was a striking ‘common ground’ in not only the tactile-kinaesthetic movements and rhythms between dog–child and horse–adolescent but also the synergy and synchronicity in movement and ‘becoming-with’ one another.
This is dramatically seen when both human and animal bodies appear to merge, whether cuddling the dog or riding the horse.
Such entanglements seem fundamental to child well-being and flourishing, as touch in middle childhood, in particular, diminishes rather significantly.
Animals such as horses and dogs could potentially be crucial in addressing imbalances or deficits at key times of development.
Indeed, animals could support children who have been subject to abuse (emotional, physical, sexual) and are withdrawn or defensive to touch, they said.
Bodies of Knowledge, Kinetic Melodies, Rhythms of Relating and Affect Attunement in Vital Spaces for Multi-Species Well-Being: Finding Common Ground in Intimate Human-Canine and Human-Equine Encounters
Donna Carlyle and Pamela Graham
Animals 2019, 9(11), 934; https://doi.org/10.3390/ani9110934