Dombek studying effects of therapy pets in elementary classroom

Donna and Ellie

Dr. Donna Dombek has traded her college classroom for an elementary school classroom to study the effects of therapy pets on children's socio-emotional well-being.


Dombek, associate professor of education, and her beagle, Ellie, are working with Greg Gleason's third grade class at School Street Elementary School in Bradford. Every Tuesday and Thursday for about 3 1/2 hours, there is a temporary gate on Gleason's classroom door to give Ellie free range with the students, roaming and interacting as she pleases.


Although Ellie roams at her own leisure, students do not seem distracted at all by her presence. When she gets close to them, they pet her briefly and then go back to their work as soon as she walks away. Even with Ellie directly in front of them, the students pay attention to Gleason's writing lesson. While Ellie makes her way through the children, Dombek observes the interactions as well as keeps an eye on her beagle.


Before the study began, Dombek and Gleason instructed the students not to allow the dog's presence to distract them from their schoolwork, but that they could pet her during classroom activities.


Dombek's interest in the project began about three years ago, when she began training her late beagle, Maggie. Dombek said she wanted something to do other than work-related activities. She also appreciated the therapeutic value Maggie had. Shortly before Maggie's death, Dombek adopted her current dog, Ellie, at 13 weeks old. She recognized that Ellie had the qualities to become a therapy dog. From April 2016 to June 2017, Dombek and Ellie worked hard to achieve Ellie's therapy dog status.


With Ellie's certification as a therapy dog and her own background as an elementary schoolteacher and principal, Dombek dedicated eight months to designing a study and figuring out the logistics of getting Ellie into a classroom with children.


Dombek also had to get her research project approved by the University of Pittsburgh's Institutional Review Board, which was a bit tricky because she was not only working with children but also introducing an animal into the scenario. Also in preparation for her study, Dombek visited the classroom to make herself familiar to the children and remove herself as a variable to the study.


To determine whether students' socio-emotional well-being changes because of the presence of a therapy dog, she is using a behavioral and emotional rating instrument with help from Gleason, her own former Pitt-Bradford education student.


Gleason completed an assessment on each of the students approved to participate in the study, rating them on a scale 0-3 for 52 questions about their socioemotional status based on what he has observed the first half of the school year. For example, does the child accept hugs, discuss problems with others, or lose a game gracefully? Of 25 children in the classroom, 23 are participants in the study.


Results aside, Gleason sees Ellie as a beneficial part of his classroom. He notes that her presence is positive reinforcement to keep students' attention. He and Dombek said that during Ellie's first visit, the students were distracted by her presence, but they told the students that if they could not work with Ellie in the room, then she would not be able to visit. From then on, the students have been attentive with the incentive of knowing Ellie gets to return each Tuesday and Thursday.


Gleason also mentioned that it seemed as if his young charges had become more empathetic toward each other. He has noticed a growth in students sharing their own feelings with one another.


The students have also voiced positive perspectives on having Ellie in their classroom. Student Koda Vawter said that not only does Ellie seem happy coming to School Street, but that having her there makes him and other students happy to come to school. He even wishes they had more time with her.


A group of other students agreed with Koda's sentiments, saying that they feel happier and excited when Ellie gets to spend time with them.


Classmate Myah Gomez said that Ellie is a nice dog and knows not to lick them or be too rowdy and that students know they should not follow Ellie or pester her in any way.


Abby Spencer, another student, explained that Ellie also teaches them lessons like not to leave their food on the floor. Jeremiah Carpenter said that Ellie has taught him to multitask because now he can write and pet Ellie without being too distracted.


At the end of the year, Gleason will evaluate the children again to see if there have been changes in their social-emotional well-being.


 When her research concludes, Dombek will write up her findings and submit them for publication. In her research findings, she will also include anecdotal information from her observations of Ellie interacting with the students.


The study is unique, she said, since earlier research done with therapy pets and children has typically only involved changes in students' academics and not included their social-emotional well-being.