Helen Lewis explores how the bond between a child and a dog may have benefits that impact on learning…


Dispositions are ‘relatively enduring habits of mind and action’, linked to our attitudes and feelings. Dispositions affect how we view ourselves as learners and how confidently we tackle new learning situations.

Whether we refer to these dispositions in terms of ‘Habits of Mind’, ‘Growth Mindset’ or specific characteristics such as enthusiasm, resilience and persistence, we know that we need to equip our children with these so that they are ready, enthusiastic and able to learn.

One possible approach to support the development of such dispositions is that of ‘Animal-Assisted Intervention’. Research suggests that interactions with animals can impact on social, emotional, behavioural, physical and cognitive outcomes for learners.

For the last year, I have been involved in a novel project involving dogs that has had an interesting impact on learner’s attitudes, engagement and literacy.

Burns By Your Side’ (BBYS; a branch of the Burns Pet Nutrition Foundation), trains volunteers and their dogs to visit schools to help children improve their literacy, communication, confidence and motivation to learn.

The scheme is becoming increasingly popular and there are now over 30 well-trained dogs visiting nurseries, schools, libraries and colleges across south Wales.

Schools are allocated their own dog and handler who visit on a regular basis, usually once a week. They work with targeted children, who read to the dog on a one-to-one basis.

We surveyed children, teachers and volunteers at the start of the project and after their involvement to explore the impact of reading to a dog.

We looked at children’s views of themselves as learners (measured on attitudinal scales), their reading scores on standardised tests and their engagement in lessons. Initial results have been positive.

All involved feel that the project has brought benefits to learners, particularly in relation to reading, oracy and confidence, and children report that they love the chance to work with the dogs.

Their views of themselves as learners showed significant improvements. Volunteers posted regularly about their experiences with the children on a group social media account, and these anonymised posts were analysed.

Of the 57 posts made, 52 consisted of positive comments. The majority of posts related to positive changes in confidence, enjoyment, oracy and engagement.

Grace and her dog Hoola have been visiting their partner primary school regularly over the last year, and in that time Grace has observed clear differences in children’s confidence, oracy and engagement when reading to Hoola.

Teachers report that these positive attitudes towards learning are transferred to other lessons.

In Milford Haven Secondary School, notable improvements have been seen in pupil attitudes towards learning, social skills and engagement in reading since Lorna and her dog Bella have started visiting.

Children in the Myrddin Unit at Myrddin Primary School have severe, profound and multiple learning difficulties and/or autism.

Carole and her dog Sally visit on a weekly basis and have become favourite team members amongst both staff and pupils.

Teachers report that Sally’s presence has improved children’s social skills, confidence and communication.

The impact of a visit can also last beyond the school day. For example, parents of pre-school children in a setting visited by June and her dog Honey report that their children are keen to chat about Honey after she has visited.

They are also excited when they know Honey will visit, and are eager to get to the nursery to see her.

Parents themselves are enthusiastic about the initiative, and come to talk to the teachers about Honey – fostering positive communication channels between home and setting.

Animal assisted interventions are increasing in popularity – although there is a need for a more systematic and robust evidence-base, there is a growing body of research to suggest that interactions with animals can be beneficial for learners.

Bringing an animal into your learning environment could be an exciting, motivating and valuable approach to consider.

But these interventions must be carefully planned, monitored and regulated, and must view the animal as a sentient being – not a teaching tool or educational fad.

This approach would not work in all settings and with all learners but our study suggests that for many, the opportunity to relax and engage with a non-judgemental furry friend can reap great rewards.

So, if you are looking for a different approach to developing confident and enthusiastic learners, a dog really could become your new best friend!

  • Helen Lewis is the Primary PGCE lead at Yr Athrofa, University of Wales, Trinity St David


  1. Totally convinced. It was tried at Aberdare Boys School and really helped improve motivation and raised standards

  2. What a brilliant idea. I have only seen this in a Special school and the difference it made was staggering! Let’s see more of this partnership working across Wales.

  3. Although I have no direct experience of this, it seems quite logical that having a non-judgemental and unconditionally affectionate “someone” to interact with and read to etc., would naturally increase confidence. To be able to practice reading and interacting in this way would only be beneficial I would think. I know that animals have been used in home situations to help children gain confidence, particularly those children who are especially lacking in social skills of all kinds, and it would seem an excellent idea to transfer this to the educational environment provided of course that all the necessary safeguards and monitoring are in place.

  4. I think this is a wonderful idea, dogs are gentle and do not judge. I am sure it would work well with most children and I am sure they will look forward to visits from the dogs and their handlers.

  5. How fantastic! We have also tried animal therapy and have seen the positive impacts that it can have on children, family and staff well-being. Would love to know more.

  6. An area of interest for myself and teachers alike. A focus for all schools when moving towards the new curriculum and I cannot wait to begin this approach in my own class and embark on having a reading dog which has also led me to volunteer my own dog. An exciting and innovative approach.

  7. Sounds like a valuable learning tool using mans best friend. Good luck with the initiative.

  8. I have seen it for my self, having the dog there does something magical to the children and it is really lovely to see. A great article.

  9. Saw how it worked first hand at Milford Haven School . I have now had my dog assessed and we visit a primary school every week. The children there really look forward to our visit each week and even after a short time we can see their confidence growing.

  10. A really interesting project. Very timely with the latest interest in building closer links between school and communities. It also develops the idea of bringing different generations together. When I think of how much my family and I talk to our pets you have to suspect this could also be beneficial in developing oracy skills in young or reluctant talkers. The next project perhaps?

  11. I have experienced many magical moments as a handler and seen the benefits first hand. An anxious child relaxes, a nervous reader becomes more fluent, a child with communication difficulties chats non stop about their new furry teacher, the list is endless.

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