Unleashing the Benefits of Dog Therapy on SEL in the Classroom

By Cara Zelas | Big World of Little Dude

McGraw Hill
Inspired Ideas
6 min readMay 20, 2024


At New York Presbyterian Hospital, an unexpected encounter changed everything. Little Dude, my therapy dog, and I found ourselves in an elevator sliding doors moment when a stranger held the doors after noticing Little Dude. She shared a story about her dying relative’s love for dogs and how sad it was that he would never see a dog again. She requested a visit with Little Dude, and without hesitation, we agreed.

Entering the hospital room, we found a man lying still and sallow. Placing Little Dude on his bed, we witnessed a remarkable transformation. A family member took the man’s hand and placed it on Little Dude — his eyes flickered open, a glimmer of joy amidst the somber atmosphere combined with the joy of his family witnessing a dying man’s wish.

It was moments like this that made me realize how a small act of kindness can have a big impact. This experience inspired me to teach the children in my early childhood classroom about kindness through dog therapy.

In recent years, educators have increasingly recognized the importance of addressing not only academic development but also social and emotional well-being in the classroom. As we strive to create supportive and inclusive learning environments, innovative approaches such as dog therapy have gained traction for their profound impact on students’ social and emotional learning (SEL) skills.

Dogs have long been recognized for their therapeutic qualities and unconditional love. Research has shown that interactions with dogs can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression while promoting feelings of happiness, relaxation, and emotional well-being. Studies have proven that being in the presence of a dog can lower heart rate and blood pressure and have also concluded that being with a dog reduces stress (Jalongo, 2004). In the classroom setting, the presence of therapy dogs can create a calming and supportive atmosphere, fostering a sense of security and trust among students.

One of the key benefits of dog therapy in the classroom is its ability to enhance students’ social skills. Interacting with therapy dogs encourages empathy, compassion, and respect for others’ feelings. Having a dog in the classroom helps students improve their ability to act compassionately (Chandler, 2001). Students learn to communicate effectively, practice active listening, and develop cooperation and teamwork skills as they work together to care for and interact with the dogs. Through activities such as grooming, walking, and playing with the dogs, students learn valuable social-emotional skills that are essential for building positive relationships both inside and outside the classroom.

Emotional regulation is a fundamental aspect of SEL, and dog therapy provides a unique opportunity for students to learn and practice this skill in a supportive environment. Interacting with dogs can help students identify and express their emotions in healthy ways, while also learning strategies to manage stress and cope with difficult situations. The presence of therapy dogs can serve as a comforting and non-judgmental source of support for students. Additionally, the responsibility of caring for and interacting with the dogs can instill a sense of purpose and competence in students, further enhancing their self-esteem and self-worth.

Beyond the social and emotional benefits, dog therapy has also been shown to improve academic engagement and performance in the classroom. Research indicates that students who participate in dog therapy programs demonstrate increased attendance, participation, and motivation in their academic work. The calming presence of therapy dogs can help reduce anxiety and stress associated with learning, creating a conducive environment for concentration, focus, and learning retention.

Through thoughtful implementation and collaboration with trained therapy dog teams, educators can harness the transformative power of dog therapy to cultivate a positive and enriching educational experience for students.

Activity Ideas to Incorporate Dog Therapy into the Classroom

Responsibility tasks

Assign students small responsibilities related to the therapy dog’s care, such as preparing a water bowl, brushing the dog’s fur, or assisting with simple training exercises. This cultivates a sense of responsibility, empathy, and respect for animals.

Emotion identification

Show pictures or flashcards depicting different facial expressions representing various emotions. Ask students to identify and discuss the emotions shown. Then, have them observe the therapy dog’s behavior and discuss how dogs might express similar emotions or what would make a dog feel happy, sad, or frustrated. How are dogs’ and humans’ emotions the same and different?

Mindful breathing

Guide students through a mindfulness exercise where they sit quietly and focus on their breath. Allow the therapy dog to be present during this activity, as their calming presence can enhance the relaxation experience. Ask the students to observe the dog breathing by watching its belly rise and fall. Ask students to place their hands on the dog’s tummy or back and feel their breathing, and ask students to match the breathing speed of the dog.


Incorporate the therapy dog into storytime activities. Choose books that promote social and emotional skills, such as books about kindness, empathy, or friendship. Have students take turns reading to the therapy dog, providing an opportunity for nurturing relationships and building confidence in reading aloud. Big World of Little Dude offers 9 engaging books that promote SEL and dog therapy.

The benefits of having a dog in the classroom are many. As educators, we need to do all we can to help our students navigate school, be successful, and develop kindness. Therapy dogs are a fun and engaging way to do all those things.

The integration of dog therapy into the classroom setting offers a wealth of benefits for students’ social and emotional learning. From enhancing social skills and emotional regulation to promoting self-confidence and academic engagement, therapy dogs play a vital role in creating supportive and inclusive learning environments. By embracing innovative approaches like dog therapy, we can create classrooms where every student feels valued, supported, and empowered to thrive socially, emotionally, and academically.


Chandler, C. (2001). Animal-assisted therapy in counseling and school settings. ERIC Digest. //www.counseling.org/resources/library/ERIC%20Digests/2001-05.pdf

Jalongo, M.R., Astorino, T., & Bomboy, N. (2004). Canine visitors: the influence of therapy dogs on young children’s learning and well-being in classrooms and hospitals. Early Childhood Education Journal, 32(1), 9–16. //www.readdogsmn.org/uploads/8/5/3/7/8537911/canine-visitors-the-influence-of-therapy-dog_aug2004.pdf

Cara Zelas is an early childhood educator, social and emotional learning expert, and curriculum creator, who received a Bachelor of Media Communications and Bachelor of Elementary Education Degrees (Macquarie University, Sydney) as well as an Early Childhood Montessori Certification (West Side Montessori School, New York). She is in the process of completing a Master of Education. Cara founded Big World of Little Dude, an educational platform teaching children social and emotional skills. Little Dude has taught Cara and countless children that being kind to others is contagious. For more information, please visit http://www.worldoflittledude.com/

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