How Animals Like Dogs, Lizards, and Hamsters Support Students Emotionally

During her childhood, Ann Ott turned to the family dog, Tippy, for comfort following a traumatic experience of sexual abuse.

Seeking solace during this difficult time, Ott would often embrace Tippy and shed tears in the dog’s presence.

“She slept beside me and comforted me with her licks,” Ott shared.

Despite her efforts to overcome the abuse, Ott always held Tippy close to her heart. In 2018, she faced a series of unexpected losses, including her father, father-in-law, and Tipper, a shih tzu-Lhasa apso mix named in tribute to Tippy.

These losses left the Iowa high school teacher in search of a renewed purpose.

Subsequently, Ott, a social studies educator at the Osage Community School District, decided to train the family’s hunting dog, Millie, as a therapy dog and bring her to school.

“One of the things that really helped me was having our dog around,” Ott expressed. “I adore that dog so much, and I wished to have a dog with me during my school days.”

Despite doubts about Millie’s suitability for the role, the fully-trained yellow Labrador retriever joined Ott at school in January 2021.

Ott’s initiative echoes a larger trend of educators incorporating animals like dogs, frogs, and hamsters into the school environment to instill empathy, responsibility, and wildlife stewardship in students.

Ann Ott and Millie in 2021.

Professionals have long recognized the calming effect animals have on children in educational settings.

Ott experienced this firsthand when a middle school student visited her classroom to interact with 9-year-old Millie. The student confided that she only came to school that day to see the dog.

“I’m delighted you’re here,” Ott told the student, holding back tears. “She’s waiting to see you, too!”

Millie, the therapy dog at Osage schools, spends her days in Ann Ott's classroom.

“That moment validated everything,” Ott remarked. “I know having Millie helped at least one student on that day. It has been one of the most fulfilling aspects of my near 31 years in education.”

Amid the heartwarming moments, Ott also shared instances where Millie mischievously swiped water bottles from students or barged into a girls’ basketball practice during a playful excursion.

“I was simply on the way to make copies,” Ott chuckled, “but before I knew it, she was dashing into the girls’ basketball practice, chasing after all the balls, and they found it immensely entertaining.”

Continue reading to discover more about how Iowa’s educators utilize animals to aid students in learning, healing, and finding joy.

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