Kids and Dogs. Sounds Easy, Right?

Terri, Copper and Shay Hlava

Terri Hlava and her Literate Labrador teammates work with school children, examining how their beliefs about learning change when they work with therapy dogs. Additionally, Terri co-founded the non-profit research organization H.A.B.I.TA.T. (Human Animal Bond In Teaching And Therapies), researches in under-resourced schools, and teaches Disabilities Studies in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University.

I can honestly say that I love my career. My teammates and I have worked in schools for 30 years, examining how children’s beliefs about learning change when they work in small groups teaching a therapy dog lessons. Along with our teammates, I co-founded the non-profit research organization H.A.B.I.TA.T (Human Animal Bond In Teaching And Therapies). We research in under-resourced schools and teach Disabilities Studies in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University.

In this field, there’s something to love every day, but there’s no such thing as an average day when you work with young children and dogs. Sure, you establish a basic routine with certain rules about interacting nicely together, and yes, you might have a schedule, and even a lesson plan in mind when you begin the day, but, if you do your job well, then no two days are ever the same. And no days are average. Even with behavioral expectations firmly in place, the days necessarily unwind organically because every student brings different gifts and challenges. And your canine teammate will respond accordingly, empowering the shy student to participate, encouraging the student with speech/language differences to communicate effectively, and it all happens as you’re trying to cover some specific information or other important aspect of instruction that you’d so carefully planned. It doesn’t even matter what learning label is displayed on the classroom door, e.g. autism spectrum, learning dis/abilities, English language learners, etc. Just remember that if there are kids and dogs, it’s going to be wonderful and surprising, and in some ways unplannable, so flexibility is crucial. It allows you to recognize the true potential of these honest authentic learning opportunities.

Kids and Dogs. Sounds Easy, Right? 127

Suggestions on an Experiential Exercise

So, can you juggle? Balancing flexibility with preparation initially may seem like a juggling act. It takes courage, commitment, and practice to build this skill, so we recommend interviewing, observing, and volunteering with working dog teams to get a better feel for the job before you and your canine companion enter a classroom together so that you can make the most of every minute, planned or spontaneous. Establish strong, trusting relationships with your colleagues and administrator(s). Learn everything you can. Read the research. Check out Division 17 of the American Psychological Association ( and HABRI (Human Animal Bond Research Initiative Visit, or virtually visit, working models of human-animal interaction including Green Chimneys, with two campuses in New York (greenchimneys, org), and Kids and Canines in Tampa, Florida ( Take a course. More and more colleges and universities are offering continuing education, certifications, minors and degrees in this field. Consider joining a reputable therapy dog organization that provides insurance for your visits. And, speaking of those visits, the requisite preparation varies. Some therapy dog programs require at least one year of experience before even submitting an application. Other programs only require a copy of the dog’s current vaccine record and no additional experience, training or documentation. Sometimes, you’ll be the ones designing the program. So, the answer is yes. You can juggle. With some preparation and practice. The average dog can juggle too (at least when it comes to accommodating the schedules of a personal human)

What else do we know about average dogs? Correct! No such beings exist. Dogs, like children, are unique. But there are some strategies that working teams use to begin stacking up those early successes. For instance, if you’re the human in the equation, and you are partnered with a therapy dog, then make sure that this dog is happy and healthy and loves working. Like you and your students, dogs love learning too, but when your partner needs a day off, consider a classroom activity that incorporates social and cognitive skills. Encourage the students to make cards for their absent friend, conveying the idea that we all need personal time and space and a measure of autonomy in our lives.

Special Words of Warning or Encouragement

Finally, just as you protect your partner’s well-being, you may need to protect your heart too. For example, as the human on the team, you might glean disturbing information as a child confides in the classroom canine. You may be required to report the information to authorities. So, be aware and open, lest you learn something that could change a child’s world. Every

128 Terri, Copper and Shay Hlaua

encounter could change your world too, so take the time to take good care of each other.

We wish you purpose, perseverance, and all the best as you embrace the field of human-animal interaction, well-equipped to make a lasting, positive difference. Begin. Change the world . . . Share your strategies, successes and setbacks. Learn. Practice. Teach. Refine. Repeat.

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