When the teacher Veronika Poszvek at the Europaschule in Vienna asks in the morning whether everyone is there, a short “woof” sounds in the classroom. A husky, a mixed breed and a hunting dog lie quietly between the students. This is not a scenario from the “Feuerzangenbowle”: Semiramis, Herold and Datura are the first dogs in Europe that are allowed to go “to school”: In the summer of 2000, the “Dog in School” experiment began in the first grade of primary school. Several studies have shown that animals are good for children. Now the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research into Human-Animal Relationship (IEMT) wanted to find out whether dogs have a positive influence on the way they live together in a school class. The test class was a real challenge: none of the 24 children have German as their mother tongue, and none have a dog at home.
“It took a long time until we had all the permits,” says IEMT General Secretary Renate Simon. It was also important to win over Islamic parents for whom dogs are “unclean” animals. But the director of the European School was enthusiastic about the idea, and the teacher brought her four-legged friends with her, three child-friendly rescue and therapy dogs. Data collection began parallel to a control class without dogs: psychologists from the University of Vienna interviewed the children, behavioral researchers from the Konrad Lorenz Research Center in Grünau evaluated video recordings.
The results of the study “Impact of dogs on the social integration of children in school classes” show the velvet-eared auxiliary teachers with snout as ingenious educators. They actually managed to improve the social cohesion of the class. As the video recordings showed, the children stayed less in their seats and more in groups to watch and pet the dogs. As a result, they also made more contact with one another. But there was no distraction by the dogs – on the contrary: The ten girls and 14 boys followed the lesson more closely and behaved more calmly. Conspicuous and aggressive behavior decreased significantly.
“When the children argue, a dog comes and lays its head on a child’s lap – then it’s quiet,” says Renate Simon. The children apparently also spared the dog’s sensitive hearing and therefore behaved more calmly. The number of children who arbitrarily intervene in disputes increased. Shy ones were more outgoing. In the case of a child with behavioral problems, the teacher observed that her dog was licking the tears of the angry little boy. The child later said: “Datura understands me.” Through the dogs, the children also developed the ability to empathize with others – a key factor for successful coexistence. At the end of the study, the children were sad that the dogs should abandon them. But thanks to an extra permit, they accompany “their children” through to the end of fourth grade.
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