What is animal-assisted learning? Sometimes called animal-assisted education (AAE), it is defined as the “specialized application of Animal Assisted Intervention (AAI) directed at students and classroom interactions but it can also be any kind of skills-based learning activity that includes animals as teaching partners, regardless of the setting." This useful definition is from Dreamcatcher Nature Assisted Therapy in Canada which goes on to say:
"It is defined as working with an animal to help stimulate a child’s interest in any given educational activity. Examples of AAE may include reading to assistance animals, dog-bite prevention programs, humane education programs, and companionable zoos (similar to therapeutic farms)."
There is an organisation called Pet Partners who get very picky about terminology: AAI (Interventions) includes all of AAE (Education), and AAT (Therapy) and AAA (Activities). Animals involved can be either Assistance (such as guide dogs), Therapy (as in hospitals) or Emotional Support (for a particular person).
One group called Animal Angels in India reports:
"Animals are ideal reading companions because unlike peers, animals are attentive listeners; they don’t judge or criticize, so children are more comfortable and inclined to forget about their own fears. Children with low self esteem are often more willing to interact with an animal than other people. Further during such interactions, they forget their limitations. It is seen that children find reading to an animal less intimidating and transforms formerly dreaded reading events into a positive experience."
Dreamcatcher explains what type of animals are normally involved:
Reptiles, fowl, dogs, cats, rodents, lagomorphs (rabbits) and mini equines are all incorporated into classroom educational animal assisted programs. The most popular species are dogs, cats, reptiles and rodents. When AAE occurs outside the classroom setting, it can involve many other species of animals and can take on different educational focuses.
But does it do any good? A big systematic review in 2017 summarised that there were "promising findings and emerging evidence suggestive of potential benefits related to animals in school settings" but, as often the case, argued that more solid evidence is still needed.
Sadly, of course, the main use of animals in education is for dissection. In the United States, it has been estimated that nearly six million vertebrates are used for this purpose each year, of which half are frogs. Many years I ago I helped set up what was then called EuroNICHE to campaign against the use of animals in eduction. EuroNICHE is now called InterNICHE which until recently was still very actively promoting alternatives, such as plastic models and interactive software.
The historical roots of live animals in education are not clear, but they have mythical origins in the centaur, Chiron, who not only taught Asclepius, father of medicine, but also the warriors Jason and Hercules.
“Any glimpse into the life of an animal quickens our own and makes it so much the larger and better in every way.” – John Muir
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” – Mohandas Gandhi
“Animals are reliable, many full of love, true in their affections, predictable in their actions, grateful and loyal. Difficult standards for people to live up to.” ― Alfred A. Montapert
“I call my horses ‘divine mirrors’—they reflect back the emotions you put in. If you put in love and respect and kindness and curiosity, the horse will return that.” – Allan Hamilton
"The assumption that animals are without rights and the illusion that our treatment of them has no moral significance is a positively outrageous example of Western crudity and barbarity."
― Arthur Schopenhauer
Horses change lives. They give our young people confidence and self-esteem. They provide peace and tranquility to troubled souls, they give us hope.
– Toni Robinson
“A horse is the projection of peoples’ dreams about themselves - strong, powerful, beautiful - and it has the capability of giving us escape from our mundane existence.”
- Pam Brown.
“I believe that horses bring out the best in us. They judge us not by how we look, what we’re wearing or how powerful or rich we are, they judge us in terms of sensitivity, consistency, and patience. They demand standards of behavior and levels of kindness that we, as humans, then strive to maintain.”
- Clare Balding.
“We have almost forgotten how strange a thing it is that so huge and powerful and intelligent an animal as a horse should allow another, and far more feeble animal, to ride upon its back.”
- Peter Gray.
“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”
- Anatole France.