Soul, a therapy dog in Spain, has a powerful connection to the students she works with.

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A golden retriever named Soul is helping children with disabilities transition back to school after being home for months because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Teachers at the Escola Iris school in Sant Vincec dels Horts near Barcelona, Spain, say the therapy dog program has been a huge help for their students as they returned to school after six months at home. “What we have noticed a lot during the time of the pandemic is that they pay more attention to the dog,” special education teacher and dog-assisted intervention technician Meritxell Arias told Reuters

Teachers are required to wear face masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, but the coverings mean the children are not able to see or read their expressions. Unlike Soul, who (obviously) does not have to sport a face covering in the classroom. Arias says that difference “... is giving us a response that we did not expect.”

With Soul's puppy smile and wagging tail in the room, school director Joan Francesc Porras told Reuters that he's seen his students become more responsive and collaborative. “We understood that the dog was a very important tool for us.”

The Power of Pets

Dogs are commonly used in counseling, physical therapy, and occupational therapy situations. They may be used to initiate behaviors to help people work up to larger goals, or they can also be used to provide emotional support.

Animal-assisted interventions implies that you’re providing the dog as some sort of therapy modality, so they’re essentially seen as a tool,” says Haylee Bergeland, CPDT-KA, RBT and Daily Paws' pet health and behavior editor.

For many therapy dogs, including ones like Soul, their presence in places like the classroom can be used as a stress reliever. For students who may be distracted or stressed (especially after months away from school), bringing a dog into the classroom can often redirect their focus onto the animal versus everything else in the room.

Bergeland, who trains service and therapy dogs to work with special-needs children, says that dogs can also be used as an icebreaker to create a connection with a child. In those instances, she says, “The dog serves as a way to just get people to talk and interact who wouldn’t normally.”

Dogs can also help people process emotions, including individuals who may be on the autism spectrum. Bergeland says research shows that the same kiddos who might have a hard time reading human emotion or expression don’t have as hard of a time reading an animal. Although there is a lot of nuance to understand what a dog is trying to say, most people can associate signs like a wagging tail, excited movements, or barking with happiness. 

It's possible for dogs to also be used with people on the spectrum to help teach and build eye contact. While children on the spectrum may not innately want to look another person in the eyes, Bergeland says that her experience in animal-assisted interventions has shown that the same is not always the case for kids and animals.

The road to becoming Man's Best Friend is a long one, with proof that canines have walked alongside their human companions some 30,000 years ago (or more). With a bond as strong as this one, it's no surprise our four-legged friends—especially working animals like therapy dogs—are able to have such a positive impact on the people they serve.