Here we describe a pilot Dog-Assisted Activity program that was designed to improve wellbeing and social integration in a multi-cultural elementary classroom in which some episodes of bullying had been reported. We developed a 5-encounters protocol with the aim of introducing pet dogs into the class to stimulate understanding of different types of communication and behavior, ultimately facilitating positive relationships among peers. A preliminary evaluation was carried out in order to assess the effect of the program on teachers' perception of children's difficulties (e.g., peer relationship problems) and strengths (prosocial behaviors) by means of a brief behavioral screening tool, the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ-Teacher version). Overall results indicate that, by means of the recognition of the dogs' behavior and non-verbal communication, children were able to express their emotions and to show behaviors that had not been recognized by the teachers prior to the intervention. In particular, the SDQ Total Difficulties scores suggest that the teacher had increased awareness of the students' difficulties as a result of the dog-assisted program. Overall, the presence of animals in the educational environment may provide enjoyment and hands-on educational experiences, enhanced psychological wellbeing, and increased empathy and socio-emotional development.
- Human-animal interaction