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Animals, Empathy, and Violence: Can Animals Be Used To Convey Principles of Prosocial Behavior to Children?

NCJ Number
Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice Volume: 6 Issue: 1 Dated: January 2008 Pages: 47-58
Julie E. Sprinkle
Date Published
January 2008
12 pages
This article reports on an evaluation of South Carolina's Healing Species program, which is a school-based violence prevention/intervention and character education program that uses rescued shelter dogs to teach elementary and middle-school students antiviolence and prosocial attitudes and behaviors.
The evaluation found that the Healing Species program positively affected participants' normative beliefs about aggression, violent behaviors as measured by school suspensions, levels of empathy, and teachers' perceptions of aggressive behaviors. Although the evaluation methodology is acknowledged to have limitations, the article recommends that schools, parents, and teachers continue to support and improve the Healing Species program. Healing Species--a private, nonprofit program founded by a criminal attorney--emerged from the founder's recognition of two common traits in many of the violent offenders she has been assigned to defend, i.e., lack of empathy and a history of animal abuse during childhood. Research supports her conclusion. The basic premise of Healing Species is that the escalation from aggression to violence can be interrupted through the use of animals to teach children how to identify and practice prosocial behaviors and how to experience and express empathy. Healing Species consists of 11 45-minute weekly lessons that involve an animal as the teacher. Near the end of the lesson, the instructor connects the animal's sharing, cooperation, and service to others. The dog's presence in the classroom provides children with the opportunity to witness prosocial behavior (e.g., petting a frightened animal), practice prosocial behavior (petting the dog), with reinforcement for their behavior (praise by program staff). One week before and 1 week after program participation, students completed the Index of Empathy for Children and Adolescents and the Normative Beliefs About Aggression Scale. Teachers completed the Aggressive Behavior Teacher Checklist for each student before and after program participation. 6 tables and 47 references