Counseling with Pocket Pets: Using Small Animals in Elementary Counseling Programs

Article excerpt

Numerous studies have shown the beneficial effects of animals on the health and adjustment of individuals, including children. School counselors can use small animals such as hamsters, gerbils, and guinea pigs as an effective adjunct intervention. Pocket pets help build rapport, enhance the counseling relationship, and facilitate work on issues including feelings, responsibility, grief, and attachment.


"What happened to Harry?" Brothers Charles and Joe, reenrolling at my school for their fifth elementary placement, had stopped by the counseling office on their first morning back to check on an old friend. The boys, who had surrendered their own pets over the course of several family moves, were saddened to learn that Harry the hamster had died of advanced age. At the same time, they were intrigued by my newest resident, a dwarf hamster named Ginger. Charles immediately volunteered to take Ginger under his care, begging to take him home over spring break. His offer dovetailed perfectly with my own plans: I wanted to check in with Charles regularly, I hoped to cultivate his emerging sense of responsibility, and, not incidentally, I needed a hand with hamster chores.

The power of the human-animal bond has been described in sources as diverse as ancient literature, modern fiction, and research reports in the professional literature (Chandler, 2001; Mallon, 1992; Parshall, 2003; Siegel, 1993). Educators have used classic examples, such as those found in the children's books Old Yeller and Where the Red Fern Grows, to teach young students important lessons about loving and living. Families, likewise, have historically endorsed the importance of animals in the process of child-rearing: rural children have assumed responsibility for animal care from an early age, while their city cousins have raised and enjoyed companion animals (Parshall; Siegel).

More recently, numerous scientific studies have shown the beneficial effects of animals on the health and adjustment of various populations, including nursing home residents, hospital patients, individuals with mental disorders, and children in residential treatment (Barker & Dawson, 1998; Heimlich, 2001; Parshall, 2003). Youth in a wide range of educational, medical, and recreational settings have experienced numerous benefits ascribed to animals, including a sense of belonging, reduced anxiety, increased responsibility, practice with relationships, improved mood, enhancement of the psychotherapy process, and reduction in problem behaviors (Brasic, 1998; Chandler, 2001; Mallon, 1992). Animal interventions have been as varied as pet care, horse training, swimming with dolphins, animal contact in outpatient clinics, and construction of aquariums or aviaries (Brasic; Heimlich; Parshall).

Public schools, however, operate with necessary constraints on the opportunity for human-animal connection. The presence of animals must show educational value and must link to curricula. Liability issues stemming from animal-related injuries and student allergies must be addressed. An increasing number of schools have adopted policies regarding the handling of classroom and student-owned pets in the school setting; for example, reptiles may be prohibited to reduce the risk of salmonella, and large animals may be discouraged due to perceived risk of injury. "Pocket pets" such as hamsters, gerbils, and guinea pigs provide a reasonable option in terms of safety and care in school settings.


What can pocket pets add to the counseling office? Ginger and his predecessors have taught my students lessons about feelings, self-control, responsibility, grief, and attachment far more effectively than I could have done without them. Some of the animals' lessons have become standard in my counseling and in my classroom curriculum, but new lessons present themselves with each group of students and each individual pet. …


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