Virginia AHPERD_Winter2022

Combining Leisure and Learning to Improve Health and Academics via Canine Assisted Reading Programs Dr. Kirstin L. Whitely , DHA, CTRS, Assistant Professor in Therapeutic Recreation, Department of Health, Recreation, and Kinesiology, Longwood University Madellyn G. C. Richardson , CTRS, Bachelor of Science in Therapeutic Recreation, Longwood University Logan E. Levine , Undergraduate Student in Therapeutic Recreation, Longwood University

Introduction Recreation and play-based activities allow children to access imagination which drives creativity, a desire to learn by gaining knowledge about self, the environment and skill mastery (Brown, 2009). Children will experience a flow state when leisure skill matches the level of challenge in the activity; consequently, con centration sharpens on the task at hand, and they receive real time feedback, resulting in deepening of skill and knowledge (Csik szentmihalyi, 1990 as cited in Anderson & Heyne, 2012). While educators have become more in-tune with these attributes of play and leisure as tools for teaching and learning, one potentially beneficial leisure-based learning tactic, animal-assisted interven tions, has been underutilized. Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a goal-directed interven tion based upon clinical or educational goals in which an ani mal with specific skills or training interacts with a human being with the intention of promoting or improving social, emotional, physical and/or mental function (American Veterinary Medi cal Association, n.d.). Animal-based interventions date back to Ancient Greece where the presence of horses was believed to have healing and comforting effects for individuals who were seriously ill (Alliance on Therapy Dogs, 2018). Since then, the therapeutic benefits of animal-human interactions have been well documented in the literature across many disciplines including recreational therapy/therapeutic recreation (RT/TR) (Hallybur ton & Hinton, 2017). Specifically, this article will discuss a sub set of AAT, canine-assisted reading programs (CARP) which is a goal-driven intervention wherein the student reads aloud to a trained canine companion (Fung, 2017). While this experience impacts each person differently, CARP can be socially emotion ally, physically and academically beneficial for children with and without disabilities. CARP are considered therapeutic recreation because children have fun while interacting with therapy dogs who are non-judg mental, calm and patient while they read (Fung, 2017). RT/TR is “a systematic process that utilizes recreation and other activity based interventions to address the assessed needs of individuals with illnesses and/or disabling conditions, as a means to psycho logical and physical health, recovery and well-being” (ATRA, 2015, para.5). Moreover, Certified Therapeutic Recreation Spe cialists (CTRS), or recreational therapists, are well-suited and situated to implement CARP because RT/TR services are more prevalent within school settings as well as before-after school programming for children with and without disabilities (Wilder et al., 2014).

Purpose The purpose of this article is twofold: (a) to review the litera ture in order to highlight the benefits of CARP participation for school-age children with and without disabilities, and (b) identify evidence-based practice guidelines for educators and/or health professionals such as CTRS’ interested in incorporating a CARP into their curriculum/therapeutic programming. Benefits of Canine Assisted Reading Programs Social-Emotional Benefits While the act of reading is generally thought of as a cogni tive process and an independent activity, for children, especially those with disabilities or impairments, it can have social and emotional ramifications as well. Biophilia hypothesis suggests that humans are social animals that thrive and attend to tasks bet ter when the environment contains other living entities, rather than just inanimate objects alone (Hall et al., 2016). It stands then, that children would be more willing to engage with objects in the environment, books in this case, when associated with liv ing beings, or canines. Research findings support the biophilia hypothesis as children participating in CARP do demonstrate improved attention and motivation (Hall et al., 2016; Kirnan et al., 2015). Schuck et al. (2015) reported improved social skills, prosocial behavior as well as a decline in negative symptoms for children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) participating in a CARP when compared to a control group. Hall et al. (2016), Lane & Zavada (2013), and Lewis (2017) all noted increases in CARP participant confidence. Another hallmark of CARPs cited in several studies either an ecdotally or correlatively is that the children perceive the dog to be a non-judgmental partner in the reading process resulting in decreased anxiety, improved confidence, autonomy and social ization (Lane & Zavada, 2013). In their systematic review, Hall et al. (2015) highlights a study in which children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) displayed positive attitudes, feelings and affect including smiling and laughing and decreased problem behaviors as a result of participation in a CARP. In another small pilot study, children with intellectual and physical disabilities who participated in a CARP experienced improved expression of feelings, spontaneous interaction, autonomy and confidence (Rincón et al., 2021). Physical Benefits Rincón et al. (2021) and others have also observed that im proving fine and gross motor skills is another potential benefit

2 • Virginia AHPERD • WINTER 2022

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