“Growing up with Puppy” – an Animal Assisted Education Model

The original Spanish article was written for the Animales Que Suman website. You can find it at https://animalesquesuman.com

I walk into the classroom full of 6-year-olds and instantly feel the buzz of pent-up excitement. They murmur and nudge each other, eyes sparkling with curiosity. They focus on my little companion, the puppy who walks happily by my side. For the children, it is an incredible thing, a puppy in their classroom! The children are caught between the excitement of a canine visit and the need to follow their teacher’s instructions. They can barely control the excitement of seeing their guest again.

Daisuke, the puppy, and I are visiting a 2nd grade class at Mercè Rodoreda Primary School in Barcelona, as part of a project called “Growing up with Daisuke”. The reasons for doing Animal Assisted Education (AAE) and, above all, the benefits of pairing children with dogs in an educational setting are well documented. Cynthia Orive’s post (https://animalesquesuman.com/perro-en-clase/) explains how a dog can facilitate the educational process by acting as a motivator. The dog’s collaboration is sincere and unbiased, inviting children to take part, offer their opinions and ideas, and open to learning. But our AAE model, under the umbrella name “Growing up with Puppy”, goes further. The children and a puppy come together over a long period, allowing them to create a foundation of mutual support that enables them to learn valuable skills.

The “Growing up with Puppy” model follows a simple premise: a puppy and an AAI practitioner visit a classroom once a month for 8 or 9 months, coinciding with the school year. When the project starts in September, the puppy is between 4 and 6 months old. (The starting age depends on the breed, the size of the puppy, its maturity level and its socialisation history.) Throughout the project – from the beginning of the school year to the end – the puppy develops into a 12 to 14-month-old dog. He matures in the eyes of the children, acquiring skills and self-confidence, but always maintaining his natural exuberance. The nature of his interactions with children increases in complexity as the puppy matures. At first, he is a restless puppy ready to play. But by late spring, he has learned to be an enthusiastic collaborator in structured activities.

We aim to help the children to gain emotional maturity while enjoying the visits. Therefore, the teaching method revolves around a series of vital puppy-related themes that translate to the pupils’ own experiences. Each monthly visit follows a designated theme, which is introduced to the children through a story and/or related activities. The children express their feelings and opinions about the situations the puppy encounters in each story as he learns to cope with the world. In doing so, we encourage them to navigate their own emotions within the context of the theme.

Examples of the many topics include civility and coexistence; health and hygiene; families and friendship; sexuality and reproduction; food and nutrition; and social challenges and barriers. The themes are deliberately open-ended and broad, and are easily adaptable to situations both human and canine. We present topics in an age-appropriate way, with material created according to the abilities and interests of the pupils. Throughout the project, the pupils share what “growing up” means to them. In effect, they grow along with the puppy.

Here is an example of one of Daisuke’s visits to a 2nd grade class at Mercè Rodoreda School, at the beginning of the project. The general theme is “civicism and coexistence”. I start with a story about Daisuke and I on a walk. In the streets and parks, we find various objects, some of them new and fascinating from a puppy’s point of view. Cigarette butts, empty bottles, tissues – things that people had simply thrown on the ground. I explain to the children that I must teach Daisuke not to pick anything up with his mouth. “Not even that half-eaten sandwich!” laments Daisuke in the story. At the end of the story, Daisuke receives a dog treat because he could leave the litter on the ground. I explain how these objects puzzled Daisuke. This opens the door to the children’s opinions. I ask them what they notice when they walk in the street, which leads to a discussion about civicism and our role in keeping public spaces clean and safe. Then, changing the subject a bit, I tell the children where and when Daisuke does his “business” during walks, and how people walking their dogs should be careful to keep the pavements and parks clean. I explain the importance of using poop bags and a water bottle to keep the street clean. Each child receives a poop bag, and I bring out a rubber “poop” purchased at a joke shop. Amidst laughter and pushing and shoving, the children take turns picking it up with the bag.

And what is Daisuke doing while I tell the story? Like the puppy he is, he plays or chews on a toy. Or he goes up to greet the children (led by an assistant). In the “Growing up with a Puppy” model, we introduce a natural approach from the beginning. Neither the practitioner nor the puppy ever engages in an activity that enters the realm of pure entertainment. Of course, as he grows, the puppy is learning basic obedience and some tricks as part of his general education. Thus, as the months pass and the puppy matures, I introduce more structured and interactive activities into the project.

The broad themes of each month give this model of AAE extraordinary flexibility. We can adapt each project to suit pupils from the youngest to the teenagers. Within the same ‘civility and coexistence’ theme, for example, older pupils discuss issues such as the responsibilities of dog ownership, how to keep order in the classroom, or sharing space in their homes. A charming puppy makes it easy to address any topic at any age. With the littler ones, just walking into a classroom with a puppy is enough to capture their attention. But it works even better among adolescents; puppy appeal helps you overcome the “tell me what I don’t know” attitude of cynical boredom that seems to creep in as they grow into teens.

The “Growing Up with Puppy” model of AAE comes with built-in limitations, which makes opportunities to carry out projects few. A well-balanced puppy, who doesn’t mind interacting with a large group of children, is essential. The school must be on board, of course, and the full and proactive cooperation of the class teacher enriches the project. Because of the size of the class and the maturity level of the puppy, we keep the sessions short.

But “Growing with Puppy” is a model inspired by the natural empathy between children and puppies and the perception of shared experiences as they grow and learn. This model of AAE is magically simple: we pair puppies with children within a classroom. But the success of each individual project depends on the extra, singular details. It is an AAE model for people willing to flex their creative muscles throughout the entire project, from the detailed preparation to the end of the school year, when puppy and children say goodbye. We would love to hear from AAI practitioners who have used this model to tell us what they think of the experience and how the children have benefited from “growing up with a puppy”.

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