Dog training as a violence prevention tool for at-risk adolescents

Publishing Authors : R. Lee Zasloff, Lynette A. Hart and Joan Melrod Weiss

Date Published : 16/04/2003


Humane education programs often target at-risk children and seek to teach
empathy and gentleness with animals, but few of these have been assessed. This
prospective, longitudinal study examined the effects of “Teaching Love and
Compassion” (TLC), a humane education program employing educational
group discussions and dog training for seventh-grade, inner city youth in Los
Angeles, California. The TLC program is offered to groups of 10 to 12 students
during their three-week vacation at the year-round school. Students for the
experimental and control groups were selected from the pool of those scoring
below the 25th percentile in reading and mathematics. The study, conducted
over a two-year period, assessed four successive sessions, comprising an experimental
group of 41 children and a control group of 42 children. In morning sessions,
the experimental group had discussions focusing on interperson
Zasloff, Hart & Weiss Anthrozoös, 16 (4) . 2003 353
Keywords: adolescents, animals, children, dog training, empathy, fear,
humane education, violence prevention
mong mental health and public safety issues, violent crime by young
people is an increasing concern. Serious violent crime, such as rape
or sexual assault, suicide, physical attacks or fights involving a
weapon, and robbery, occurred in 10% of United States schools during the
1996–97 academic year (Heaviside et al. 1998). Many of the 2,566 children
expelled from schools in Los Angeles were involved in assaults (26%) or
weapons possession (34%) (Violence Prevention Coalition of Great Los
Angeles 1999). Young people in the United States committed over 30,000
murders from 1980 to 1995 (Campaign for an Effective Crime Policy 1997),
and more than 8,000 young people (aged 15 to 24 years) were victims of
homicide in 1994 (Fingerhut, Ingram and Feldman 1998). More widespread
is crime conducted without a weapon, categorized as non-violent, although
nonetheless severe. Among US public schools, 47% reported at least one
serious crime had occurred in the 1996–97 school year, including fighting
(without a weapon), theft, and vandalism (Heaviside et al. 1998). Poor performance
and attitudes in school, academic failure, and low IQ are risk factors
for youth violence (Office of Surgeon General 2001).
Ascione (1993, p. 240) has identified the absence of empathy, “the ability
to understand and relate to the emotional experiences of others,” as an
indicator associated with childhood violence, including the intentional harming
of animals. A meta-analysis of empirical data by Miller and Eisenberg
(1988) suggested that empathy for others can inhibit aggression. Indeed, positive
outcomes in social behavior and self-evaluation for both aggressive and
nonaggressive students resulted from a training program in empathy implemented
to address social violence among third and fourth graders (Feshbach
and Feshbach 1982). And among adolescent, aggressive girls, empathy training
improved emotional components of empathy (Pecukonis 1990).
Programs assisting at-risk children by teaching gentleness with animals
often lack systematic assessment (e.g., Rathmann 1999). However, the use
of animals in therapeutic education in residential treatment for children with
attention deficit/hyperactivity, conduct, and other disorders, was associated
with a resulting reduction in behavior pathologies (Katcher and Wilkins
2000). Eight students participating in a dog training program in another
study decreased their noncompliant/aggressive behaviors (Siegel 1999).
Humane education teaches respect, compassion and reverence for life,
including animals (American Humane Association 1998, p. 9). Many
humane societies conduct various programs, including single classroom preA
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354 Anthrozoös, 16 (4) . 2003 Zasloff, Hart & Weiss
sentations on pet care or spay/neuter, while others consist of ongoing curricula
(Savesky and Malcarne 1981; Golden 1992). In one study, a single classroom
presentation on humane education increased children’s humane
attitudes (Fitzgerald 1981). However, humane education studies often lack
pre- and follow-up-testing, and exclude at-risk children (Ascione 1997). One
year-long, school-based program enhanced children’s attitudes toward animals
that generalized to human-related empathy (Ascione 1992), and this
result was sustained in later tests (Ascione and Weber 1996).
Troubled institutionalized children often will first establish trust with
animals, then bridge toward relationships with people (Ross 1994). At residential
facilities, behavior of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
who participated in a zoo program improved over those with other
kinds of outdoor activities (Katcher and Wilkins 1998). In a Texas dog training
program, adolescents with learning disabilities and behavior problems
reportedly expressed improved self-concepts (Koidin 1995).
Emphasizing humane education, violence prevention, and improved
social skills, “Teaching Love and Compassion” (TLC) is a three-week,
school-based program targeting seventh grade boys and girls, ages 11 to 13
years. The program objectives are to help the children: 1) increase their
knowledge of responsible pet care; 2) improve their sensitivity to other living
things by bonding with the animals they work with; and 3) develop new
skills by learning to train shelter dogs, working with others, and learning
skills for managing conflict. Originated in Los Angeles, the program has
extended to nine other sites in Southern California, as well as Oregon, New
York, and Arizona. This study in Los Angeles assessed the program’s effects,
using animals in a short-term intervention for at-risk children.
Description of the program
“Teaching Love and Compassion” (TLC) was developed in 1994 by the
humane education department at the SPCA/LA, collaborating with the
Hawthorne Intermediate School in central Los Angeles. Considering that
poor academic performance has been linked to youth violence, students
scoring below the 25th percentile on reading and mathematics in standardized
achievement tests are specifically targeted for TLC. Twelve students
participate in daily, full-day classes during the three-week period.
Group discussions each morning are led at the school by a public
health professional (JMW). Students learn skills for interacting and communicating
with people, and about basic pet care, dog bite prevention, and
pet overpopulation. During afternoons at the animal shelter, a dog trainer
assists students in training their assigned dogs; students work in pairs to
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Zasloff, Hart & Weiss Anthrozoös, 16 (4) . 2003 355
gain skills in getting along with others. Graduating students give a dog
obedience demonstration and receive certificates.
The TLC program is offered to students in three-week sessions during their
three-month vacation at the year-round school. From the pool of eligible
seventh graders, 12 students meeting the standardized test guidelines were
selected for the TLC experimental group. Anticipating lower retention for
the control group, 16 students were selected from the same pool for each
session, meeting the same test guidelines of the 25th percentile and selection
criteria. Four successive sessions were included in this assessment.
Prior parental permission is required for student participation in TLC.
Both student and parental assents were required for participation in the
assessment of TLC (UC Davis Human Subjects Protocol IRB 96-598); parents
of 17 students (8 girls, 9 boys) did not return the additional consent
forms required. A total of 83 participants was included in the final data
analysis, 41 who had participated in the TLC program (experimental group,
17 girls, 24 boys) and 42 who had not (control group, 21 girls, 21 boys).
Instruments used and variables measured
The school schedule required that each evaluation be completed during a
single class period. Pilot pre- and post-testing using standardized instruments
of empathy and attitudes to animals began with a session of 11 children
participating in TLC. The pilot tests were given to a second session,
comprising12 children participating in TLC and 12 other children serving
as a control group. The students’ limited reading ability and the time
required for administration of the standardized tests precluded their use.
Thus, a brief, more simple, survey was designed.
The ad hoc questionnaire designed for this study accommodated the
children’s reading level and the scheduling time constraints. In Part 1, a 20-
item true/false scale consisted of 16 questions concerning appropriate pet
care practices and the needs of animals (adapted from a tool developed by
SPCA/LA for internal assessment), and four questions addressing anger,
conflict, and violence. Examples are: “It’s best to wait until your pet has had
one litter before you spay or neuter it,” and “It is okay for me to hit another
person if I am angry.” Total scores were recorded for the 16 items of Part
1. The four items concerning violence, conflict, and abusiveness were analyzed
individually. In Part 2, ten items had a 4-point response scale ranging
from “never” to “always.” Five items pertained to attitudes toward the self
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356 Anthrozoös, 16 (4) . 2003 Zasloff, Hart & Weiss
and five pertained to attitudes toward others; each group of five items was
scored as a unit. Examples are: “I feel good about myself,” and “I get along
with other people in a group.” An additional, separate item, using a threepoint
scale, asked about fear of dogs. The questionnaire was administered
at three time periods to the experimental and control groups: prior to TLC
(pre-test); at the end of TLC (post-test); and four to six months after TLC
(follow-up test). Statistical analyses of these results were based on repeated
measures analyses of variance, focusing on the time by experimental/control
group, and the time by experimental/control group by session (reflecting
the four different TLC sessions) interaction.
After the final follow-up test, open-ended interviews were conducted
with 24 randomly selected students (12 boys, 12 girls), half from the TLC
group and half from the control group. The interviewees were told that they
were participating in a study from the University of California, Davis, to
learn about students’ experiences. The interviews consisted of 12 openended
questions which concerned interpersonal relationships, responses to
anger and conflict, participation in special groups, clubs, or activities at
school, church, or in the community, interest in school, and experiences
with animals. An example is, “Have you participated in any special programs
or activities at school or in the community?” to account for other
positive programs or activities. The interviewer (RLZ) was not told from
which group the student was drawn. Additionally, six randomly selected
TLC students were interviewed concerning: what they learned in TLC
about themselves, other people and dogs, and about changes they attributed
to TLC. These data were printed and compiled, and then a descriptive
analysis prepared from them.
Members of the experimental group increased their understanding of pet
care and the needs of animals and retained this information more than did
the control group, a consistent difference for all four TLC sessions, equally
strong at the times of post-testing (F=58.4, p=0.0001) and follow-up
testing (F=18.9, p=0.0001). For the item “It’s best to be violent if someone
is threatening you with violence,” the control group in post-testing
answered “true” to this item significantly more often than did the experimental
group (F=4.8, p=0.032). However, this difference was no longer
significant at the follow-up test (p=0.092). Experimental and control
groups did not differ in their pre-test scores.
The experimental and control groups differed in their fear of dogs.
Post-test results showed a trend toward significance, with the experimental
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group reporting a decreased fear of dogs (F=3.6, p=0.062). During followup
testing, the difference was statistically significant (F=4.2, p=0.019).
Subsequent interviews revealed that students not only were less afraid, but
increased their liking for dogs.
Although personnel at the Hawthorne Intermediate School believe that
the TLC program creates a special bond among the students that increases
their sense of belonging and their ability to work with others, the follow-up
interviews of students revealed no remarkable differences between experimental
and control groups. Students in both groups stated that, when faced
with an interpersonal conflict, they try to resolve it peacefully by talking
about it or disengaging by walking away or ignoring the provocation.
Students interviewed specifically about their TLC experience stated
that they learned to care for animals and to have more concern for them;
gained an understanding of basic dog behavior which helped to reduce
their fear of dogs; increased their confidence, self-esteem, and interpersonal
skills; learned positive ways of handling conflict; and improved their
attitudes toward school and toward adults. Typical responses were: “TLC
teaches you different concepts about animals and builds your selfesteem…makes
you feel good about yourself,” “Now I like all the animals
because I know how they feel when…nobody pays attention to them. I like
dogs now,” “It made me feel like I have a lot of good things about myself,”
“My attitude is better toward teachers,” and “Some of these people don’t
like animals. It could help them change their attitude the same way it
changed mine.”
The TLC program increased students’ knowledge of effective pet care
practices, diminished their fear of dogs, and presented alternatives to violence.
Such positive preventive effects from this brief intervention are consistent
with empirical findings and informal observations of children and
adults in rehabilitative programs involving animals. For example, female,
Australian prison inmates showed increased self-esteem and decreased
depression following a dog training program (Walsh and Mertin 1994);
additional women joined the program after observing the decreased
aggression, greater calmness, and happiness among participants.
This study was constrained by the school schedule and involved only
a three-week intervention. Further, these high-risk children lived with daily
exposure to violence and aggression toward people and animals. Yet, the
TLC interviewees expressed positive changes in their knowledge and attitudes
toward themselves, toward animals, and toward other people.
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358 Anthrozoös, 16 (4) . 2003 Zasloff, Hart & Weiss
Learning and implementing the skills of training a dog can instill an
increased sense of mastery, self-esteem, and empathy for living things.
Further efforts toward an experimental approach for evaluating humane
education could focus on the use of standardized instruments administered
to both students and teachers, compiling data on school-related behavior
such as attendance and the observance of school rules, and long-term follow-up
of the students.
The California Community Foundation provided a grant for this study. The
authors appreciate the generous assistance of the SPCA/LA staff and Mrs.
Teddy Greenwald at the Hawthorne Intermediate School. Neil Willits
offered valuable statistical consultation.
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