Dogs working in schools–Safety awareness and animal welfare

Elsevier, Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Volume 57, November 2022
Bidoli E.M.Y., Firnkes A., Bartels A., Erhard M.H., Doring D.

Gaining popularity, animal-assisted education is thought to enhance learning processes and children's development, inter alia. While previous research has focused on these potential positive effects for the pupils, animal welfare and human safety in the classroom are aspects that have hardly been examined so far. We performed a cross-sectional investigation at 54 Bavarian schools with one working dog each. Our aim was to describe the status quo and to identify problematic issues which may require measures for ensuring awareness and prevention. We attended one class for a single or double session, videotaped for subsequent behavior analysis of the dog, and the handler was asked to complete a questionnaire. The handlers were mainly female teachers with more than 2 years of work experience. The dogs' median age was 3.0 years, and 22 of them (40.7%) had received a specialized training before working at school. We visited mostly elementary schools (38.9%, n = 21/54). According to survey data, the mean duration of a session was 3.3 ± 1.9 hours, and the dogs participated in classes on 8.7 ± 6.0 days per month. Based on video analysis, the dogs' behavior as well as any interaction of the pupils and of the teacher with the dog were given a score, resulting in a classification as "innocuous," "problematic," or "critical." Half of all sessions were categorized as "problematic" and about a quarter as "innocuous" and "critical," respectively. Common "problematic" interactions included contact with several pupils at the same time (in 64.8% of classes), whereas common "critical" interactions included hugging / kissing the dog (in 18.5% of classes). Common "problematic" canine behaviors, reflecting an urgent need for optimized procedures, were for instance withdrawal reactions (in 37.0% of dogs). "Passive submission of the dog/ducking / crouching" was a "critical" category determined in 11 dogs; furthermore, aggressive behavior toward a pupil and territorial behavior occurred once, respectively. Moderate correlations were found as follows: Classes with older pupils had fewer "problematic" / "critical" dogs and more "innocuous" dogs compared with elementary schools; also, fewer dogs were categorized as "problematic" / "critical" if a canine aptitude test / specialized training had been performed. In conclusion, this study raised some serious concerns about the dogs' welfare and the pupils' safety, highlighting the importance of national guidelines, including certification requirements.