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My Bergin U. Master's Thesis & Project - FRISKY FITNESS

Presentation of project/paper at Bergin U. graduation: May 6, 2017

Exploring the potential for therapy dogs’ participation in PE class to increase students' intrinsic motivation toward physical education and physical activity:

A Frisky Fitness feasibility study

Liz R. Kover

In partial fulfilment of the Master of Science degree in Canine Life Sciences at Bergin University of Canine Studies


This Master’s project has been a profound undertaking, and certainly wouldn’t have materialized were it not for the following people who mean the world to me. First and foremost, infinite gratitude goes to Bonnie Bergin, who told me on my very first day at Bergin U. (as an Associate’s student) that I could change the world. I made it my goal to prove her right, and make her proud. I wish to thank my committee members, beginning with Emma Grigg. Emma provided immeasurable support, always cool and calm enough to quell my worry throughout the project. Without her encouragement and help focusing, I might very well have fallen apart. Next I wish to thank Richard Ribaudo. Without Richard’s invite and encouragement to work with his middle school PE students, this project would’ve taken on a very different form. I’m so thankful for his expertise, and his genuine excitement for us to bring the Frisky Fitness program to his students. I want to thank Mona Martinez, who came into my life as though dropped from Heaven, as without her help, I surely wouldn’t have known whether I was on the right track as I traversed this extremely challenging academic terrain. And, I wish to thank Dr. Kristin Lelewer, who, in addition to offering sage advice and insight that brought clarity throughout this arduous process, is also my roommate and dear friend. A big THANKS goes also to Deirdre Brasch, Rachel Nichols, and their students -- without whom I would've had far fewer individuals in my survey-taking sample population! and I wish to thank my Dad, my Mom (in spirit), Stepmom, sisters, extended family members and friends for their unending faith in me, and unfettered support of my work in its many forms. I must also thank my Marley’s Mutts and Miracle Mutts teammates, who have been so patient with me as I’ve been consumed with this project; they freely gave me the time and space I required, and filled in for me when and where necessary, so that our programs could go on (essentially) without me at the helm. And finally, I want to thank my precious dog, Fred, without whom my heart would not be whole, and my Life’s Work would not be possible. He is my partner and my greatest love.


Children’s physical, social, and emotional experiences in physical education are influential in shaping the feelings they associate with physical activity and fitness for a lifetime; affective associations formed in PE classes may either contribute to, or detract from, the development of intrinsic motivation toward physical activity, and subsequent self-regulated physical activity behavior. While positive experiences in PE can lend to a child’s view of physical exercise as enjoyable and rewarding, negative experiences in PE can engender the unfortunate perception of exercise as unpleasant, obligatory, or even punitive. Considering the known physiological, emotional, and social benefits associated with animal-assisted interventions across a wide range of health and education modalities, we predicted that preadolescent and adolescent students’ scores on the Intrinsic Motivation Inventory (IMI) would be higher when they imagined a PE class with dogs integrated into its curriculum and gameplay, than when they reflected on a typical PE class (i.e. without dogs present). Quantitative and qualitative results supported our hypothesis.

Keywords: physical education, PE, physical activity, canine-assisted intervention, animal-assisted activities, animal-assisted therapy, animal-assisted intervention, therapy dog, intrinsic motivation, Intrinsic Motivation Inventory (IMI), extrinsic motivation, psychosocial, affective domain

Study Aim/ The purpose of our study was to gauge pre-adolescents’ and adolescents’ reactions to the idea of having “fitness assistance” therapy dogs join PE classes as part of a unique physical education intervention approach. Our study’s findings will serve to validate or discount the potential efficacy of the Frisky Fitness curriculum, which is currently in development by the author of this study. The study’s results will aid in further development of the concept, and in presenting its validity - to physical educators, school administrators, and public health officials - as a viable weight loss, obesity prevention, and/or community health initiative for elementary and middle school youth.

Methods/ Using a mixed methods research design, we gathered quantitative data from two versions of the Intrinsic Motivation Inventory (IMI) survey, customized to reflect our two study conditions – (perceived) “Regular PE” (i.e. without dogs present) and (perceived) “PE with dogs”. We collected qualitative data from interviews with 6 seventh grade participants of a 3-day Frisky Fitness pilot program at a middle school in Bakersfield, CA. We used the validating quantitative data model (Creswell, 2006), which allows researchers to use qualitative/phenomenological data to support or enhance (quantitative) findings from a survey.

Results/ Mean subscale scores on the Intrinsic Motivation Inventory (IMI) across all five categories of intrinsic motivation predictors – i.e. Interest/Enjoyment, Perceived Competence, felt Pressure/Tension (reverse scored), Perceived Choice, and Value/Usefulness – were higher in the “PE with dogs” condition than the “Regular PE” condition in online surveys. Qualitative data from student interviews collected before, during, and after the pilot program further supported data collected from surveys.


Physical Educators’ Role in Public Health

Providing enjoyable experiences in physical education is a potent strategy for increasing activity levels in youth, their attitudes about the value of exercise, and ultimately long-term health outcomes (Weiss, 2000). The World Health Organization (WHO) states that insufficient physical activity is one of the leading risk factors for death worldwide; and that more than 80% of the world’s adolescent population is insufficiently physically active (WHO, 2016). WHO also reports that insufficient physical activity is one of the 10 leading risk factors for global deaths, causing 3.2 million deaths each year (WHO, 2016). According to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the percentage of children with obesity in the United States has more than tripled since the 1970s. Today, about one in five school-aged children (ages 6–19) is obese (Fryar et al., 2014). For these reasons, an emphasis on innovative PE strategies for today’s youth is critical.

Major accomplishments in physical education over the last two decades include development of evidence-based programs, documentation of health and academic benefits of physical education, and acceptance of physical education as a public health resource (Sallis et al., 2012). Schools are identified as the primary institution for providing physical activity instruction because they have the potential to reach the most children (Prochaska et al., 2003). Because physical education remains the primary societal institution for promoting physical activity among youth, and children receive up to 18% of their daily recommended activity from PE classes (Sallis et al., 2012), improvements and additions to physical education curriculum

could help respond to some of the modern era’s most pressing health problems, namely the childhood overweight and obesity epidemic.

The Effective Health Care Program was initiated in 2005, with the objective of providing valid evidence about the comparative effectiveness of different medical interventions specific to childhood obesity (Wang et al., 2013). In a review of school-based (PE) interventions, reports showed that the strength of evidence is high that physical activity interventions within school-based studies with an added home component prevent obesity or overweight in children (Wang et al., 2013). Tapping the potential of the human-canine bond to get kids moving could create both school and home-based options for increasing youth physical activity. Some research has shown that just over one third of dog-owning youth walk their pet dogs once a day or more, as would be the ideal case for receiving potential health benefits (Westgarth et al., 2013). The Frisky Fitness PE intervention could increase that number, as program participants learn how to effectively manage, walk, and run with dogs on leash. Our supposition is that students might be more likely to engage in physical activity and play with their dogs at home once they’ve developed the confidence and skills necessary to do so as part of a fun and rewarding PE experience.

Affective experiences’ influence on deterring or developing intrinsic motivation

Good and bad, children’s phenomenological - e.g. felt emotional experience as interpreted by an individual - combine to shape their perspectives about life. Subsequently, physical education and sport settings are ripe with opportunities to form lasting associative memories; and there is good evidence that they do. This is especially, and unfortunately, true when the memories are bad ones (Cardinal et al., 2013; Strean, 2009). Scores of empirical evidence on children’s feelings about PE have shown that even one negative experience in a PE class as a child can have a profound impact on youth’s physical activity behavior as they age. A survey that asked 293 students about recollections from their childhood or youth physical education and sport experiences revealed that participants who had been picked or chosen last for a team, for example, had a significant reduction in physical activity later in life (Cardinal et al., 2013).

Children’s exercise and fitness have primarily been addressed as a public health concern, but only recently has a motivational perspective been applied (Weiss, 1993). Intrinsic motivation theory – a component of Self-Determination Theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000) - provides a model for conceptualizing the motivating nature of enjoyable experiences, and has been applied extensively to the study of youth (and adult) physical activity behaviors (Prochaska et al., 2003). Looking at what motivates individuals’ choices, which either lend to or deter from a healthy lifestyle, seems a viable approach for current and future studies considering that, regardless of one’s initial motive for beginning an exercise regimen, intrinsic motivation is critical for long term adherence (Ryan et al.,1997).

Successful PE Interventions

Psychosocial outcomes of physical education and other physical activity programs in the school setting have been shown to be critical for continued physical activity across the lifespan (Bauman et al., 2012; Kohl and Cook, 2013). It is only by considering the myriad social-psychological factors that influence children and adolescents – e.g. self-perceptions, family members’ and peers’ influences, developmental characteristics, sociocultural and environmental

factors – along with physiological influences and outcomes - that we can hope to inspire young people to adopt a positive attitude toward the value of exercise, and ultimately a physically active and healthy lifestyle across childhood, adolescence, and adulthood (Weiss, 1992). Successful PE interventions’ curriculum intentionally devotes time to teaching socio-affective goals - like teamwork, cooperation, and respect for self and others (Heidorn et al., 2010) – through instruction that guides learners in regulating and controlling emotions through contact and interaction with others.

The large-scale PE-based physical activity programs that have been successful in increasing out-of-school physical activity (in children) apply a pedagogical framework targeting variables associated with motivation -- i.e. perceived competence, enjoyment of physical activity, social support, and self-determination (Rink and Hall, 2008). One fundamental aspect of physical educators’ role in encouraging students is the creation of a mastery motivational climate, or one that promotes learning, effort, and self-improvement, and where mistakes are viewed as part of the learning process (Weiss, 2000). In a canine intervention that emphasizes bonding with dogs through proactive, positive communication, and integrates positive reinforcement dog training into its activities and gameplay, students become creators of a mastery environment for the dogs and for themselves.

Some innovative intervention approaches that have been successful in reaching kids where more traditional interventions have failed, include yoga – a non-competitive activity with low-aerobic intensity that is ideal for children and teens who may not feel comfortable participating in other sports, or who may be intimidated by more vigorous forms of

exercise (Birdee et al., 2009); dance, which, in addition to proven health benefits of physical activity, provides a context for social-emotional skill building in areas like respect, teamwork, and, by extension, empathy (Yap. 2016).

And -- role-playing, which, according to assistant professor of Kinesiology, Sport Studies, and Physical Education at The College at Brockport State University of New York, Amaury Samalot-Rivera, is a social-skill intervention that can be used in physical education to teach socially appropriate behaviors during games and sports (Samalot-Rivera, 2014; Vidoni & Ulman, 2012). Yoga (or “Doga” as it’s sometimes called), dancing with dogs, and role playing (in the form of students learning the responsibilities of, and playing the role of, “dog guardian” or “benevolent pack leader”) are all integrated into the Frisky Fitness PE curriculum. Furthermore, being an effective dog handler in any context requires respect (for oneself and one’s canine charge), teamwork, empathy, communication and leadership skills. Children and adolescents working with dogs as part of a physical education model are provided extensive opportunities for developing these important social and life skills.

Dogs could provide positive social support in a PE setting

Several studies have looked at the influence of close friendship on children’s psychosocial development and physical activity behavior. Duncan (1993), who studied this effect in 12-15 year old middle school students found that children who reported higher perceived companionship and esteem support in their friendships and social relationships also reported greater enjoyment of doing physical activities, and interest in choosing activities outside of the school setting. Smith (1999) found that middle school students’ perceptions of close friendships were significantly related to physical self-worth, positive affect, intrinsic motivation, and physical activity levels.

For children who feel alienated in PE class, a nonjudgmental canine friend might prove even more effective than a fellow human classmate. Researchers have observed that many children who don’t feel comfortable interacting with other humans do not feel the same inhibition when interacting with animals (Siegel, 2004; Beck, 2015). Furthermore, results from a study that used the Companion Animal Bonding Scale (Poresky et al., 1987), which measures children’s relationships with their pet dogs, showed that children who had close relationships with their companion animals also ranked higher in benefits for social competence, empathy, and cooperation.

Boris Levinson (1984), a famed American child psychologist, whose patients were more inclined to respond positively to therapy in his dog Jingles’ presence, was among the first to postulate that dogs serve as social catalysts between people. Regarding dogs in the school setting, professor of Education Mary Renck Jalongo (2004) notes that dogs’ presence ultimately improves inclusion of all students by enhancing peer interactions and other social skills.

Dogs have a normalizing effect in a social environment in that they offer engaging and accepting interactions without reflecting back the discomfort, concern, and agitation of a difficult situation (Hart and Fine, 2000). Middle school PE classes can be harsh, unforgiving environments to the more self-conscious, and/or less athletically or competitively inclined students in a group. The equalizing effect of having dogs present in social situations, in combination with a physical education curriculum that emphasizes cooperation over competition, and improvement through experience over winning and losing, might change the negative associations many children have with PE, to positive ones.

Intrinsic & Extrinsic Motivation

Intrinsically motivated behaviors are those performed for the satisfaction one gains from engaging in an activity itself (Ryan et al., 1997). According to most theorists, the primary satisfactions associated with intrinsically motivated actions are experiences of interest/ enjoyment, i.e. the desire to have fun, pursue interests, and be stimulated; and competence, i.e. the desire to be challenged, and practice and expand skills (Ryan et al., 1997). By contrast, extrinsically motivated behaviors are those performed with the expectation of receiving rewards or outcomes not directly associated with the activity in which one is engaged. The desire for weight loss or body image improvement are prime examples of extrinsically motivating factors that incentivize physical activity behavior. While participants in physical activity programs often report health benefits or weight loss as their reason for initiating an exercise program, long-term participants reported enjoyment as their principle reason for continuing a program. Meanwhile, lack of enjoyment is a known primary reason for withdrawing from physical activity programs after any length of time (Ryan et al., 1997).

Extrinsically motivated behavior is generally not sustained over time, nor in the absence of the extrinsic rewards which incited the behavior in the first place. PE class requirements provide a form of extrinsic motivation for student participation, if only via threat of punishment for failing to attend. However, once children and teens are no longer mandated to participate in physical education at school, autonomous motivation becomes fundamental to the cultivation of a physically active lifestyle, both inside and outside of school.

3 primary predictors of intrinsic motivation

& how dogs in PE might help students cultivate them

1. Enjoyment

Researchers argue that, historically, too much emphasis has been placed on fitness testing versus physical activity behavior, and the motivation behind it. However, in recent decades the focus is shifting toward the latter, producing a wealth of studies whose results present having fun as the most crucial element in fitness or exercise programs. In other words, children must have enjoyable experiences as an integral part of physical activity involvement in order to sustain continued physical activity behavior (Weiss, 1992; Freedson and Rowland, 1992). Robust enjoyment sources include positive social interactions, support and involvement from parents, coaches and peers, mastery of skills, and euphoric movement sensations sometimes referred to collectively as a state of “flow” (Weiss, 2000).

----- Human-canine interaction facilitates “feel-good” states of body and mind/ While “enjoyment” is difficult to quantify or universally define, it can be assessed to some degree using physiological indicators, such as heightened levels of “feel good” chemicals in the brain like serotonin and dopamine; and, conversely, lowered levels of the stress hormones adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine which indicate states of distress, fear, or anxiety. Enjoyment can also be examined using qualitative measures, such as phenomenological

interviewing methods that collect children’s self-reported feelings about their personal experience of feeling happy while having an experience they, themselves, define as “enjoyable”.

In addition to the "good feelings" dog owners know in context of day-to-day life with their pets, expert in the field of animal-assisted therapy, Dr. Cynthia Chandler – a counselor and professor at the University of North Texas – notes that therapy dogs can be effectively integrated into treatment goals for individuals with mental health challenges. Some of the goals dogs help people to reach, by simply providing pleasurable affection and interaction, include brightened affect and mood, and lessened depression. The animals’ warm and playful presence can be comforting (Chandler, 2001). In a study meant to examine the efficacy of pet facilitated therapy on young hospital patients, researchers measured children’s (self- and parent-reported) happiness levels before and after play therapy interventions - one that involved a therapy dog and one that did not. Happiness levels were significantly higher in the intervention that involved a therapy dog. South African researchers, Odendaal and Meintjes (2003), showed that when people stroked and spoke with their dogs, in addition to doubling the people’s blood levels of oxytocin, the interaction boosted levels of beta endorphins — natural painkillers associated with the famed “runners high” — and dopamine, known widely as the “reward hormone”. A later and larger study by University of Missouri scientists also documented that petting dogs caused a spike in people’s serotonin, the neurotransmitter that most antidepressants attempt to replace or elevate. Rebecca Johnson, a University of Columbia-Missouri researcher and professor of nursing and veterinary medicine, has an ongoing study to determine the positive effects of canine interactions on mood-boosting brain chemicals, and reports that serotonin, oxytocin, and prolactin levels rise dramatically after a human has interacted with a live animal, specifically a dog (Johnson et al., 2008).

In response to the one open-ended statement presented on our surveys, which read “Please feel free to add comments about why you would or would not enjoy having therapy dogs participate in your PE class (optional)”, seventeen survey-takers filled in the text box.

The word “love” appeared in 9 of their responses, e.g.:

I love to train dogs and have PE with them”, “I love dogs and we don’t have one”, “I totally love dogs and would love to have dogs at my school”, and “I love dogs and they would make me more active”.

In answer to the question, “Did you enjoy PE class with dogs today?”, which pilot program participants filled out at the end of each of 3 class sessions, all six answered affirmatively. The same responses applied to the question, “Did you have fun in PE with dogs today?” When asked what they thought the most fun aspect of their experience was, students gave a range of answers, including:

“Playing with the dogs”, “running toward dogs” (as part of a game called “Human Says”, played in the spirit of Simon Says), “sitting with dogs”, and “walking with dogs”.

Regardless of the specific activity referenced, the dogs’ presence was a common thread in students’ descriptions of their enjoyment of the class.

----- Similar benefits are associated with exercise

Like spending time with dogs, physical exercise itself has highly beneficial therapeutic effects on brain chemistry. In their examination of literature on the mental health benefits of exercise, A. Byrne and D.G. Byrne (1993) found that 90% of the studies they reviewed support both the anti-depressive properties of exercise and the effect of exercise in combatting anxiety.

In addition, the studies reviewed generally substantiate the claim that improved mood is associated with exercise. In combination, the beneficial effects of physical exercise, and those associated with human-canine interactions, could exponentially increase the potential for intrinsic motivation development (toward physical activity) in children, as both flood the brain and body with neurochemicals associated with (and responsible for) feelings of enjoyment, love, connection, and happiness.

2. Perceived Competence

Perceived competence refers to individuals’ judgment about their ability in a particular skill area. Considerable evidence shows that youth who report stronger beliefs about their physical competence are more likely to enjoy physical activity and sustain interest in continuing involvement than children who report lower levels of (perceived) physical competence (Weiss, 2000; Weiss & Ebbeck, 1996). In some studies, perceived competence has emerged as the most salient predictor of self-esteem (Weiss, 1992). Meanwhile low self-esteem is a source of negative affect that accompanies perceptions of lacking ability, fear of failure, and fear of negative evaluations from others. Ultimately, these are all factors that lead to amotivation – or lack of motivation - in sport and physical activity behavior (Weiss, 1992).

Human-canine interactions enhance perceived competence in children

While scientific observation is lacking on the subject, we predict that teaching students to become effective dog handlers (as part of the Frisky Fitness PE intervention), could be an effective means by which to increase students’ leadership skills, and subsequent self-reported

feelings of accomplishment and competence. Research has shown that animals, in particular dogs, can enhance feelings of autonomy, competence and self-esteem in children (Beck & Katcher, 1983; Kidd & Kidd, 1985; Levinson, 1972; Robin & ten Bensel, 1985; Triebenbacher, 1998). Companion animals’ non-contingent positive responsiveness tends to strengthen children’s self-concepts (Harlow & Zimmerman, 1959).

In our customized versions of the Intrinsic Motivation Inventory, individuals responded to the statements, “I am pretty good at PE activities with dogs”, and “I can’t do PE activities with dogs very well” (which was reverse scored), using a seven-point Likert scale. Mean subscale scores in the Perceived Competence category were 4% higher in the “PE with dogs” condition than the “Regular PE” condition. It is interesting to note that these are children’s projections of how they believe they would feel in a PE class with dogs. Or, a reflection of how competent they feel when simply imagining one. Not knowing anything about the specifics of a hypothetical situation, a majority of the youth who took the survey imagined that they would be (or, more importantly, feel that they were) more competent in PE class if dogs were present than they (perceive they) feel in their actual PE class.

Positive results favoring “PE with dogs” were echoed in our pilot program interviews. Out of 6 participants, only 5 of them took before-and-after surveys (the same surveys kids filled out online), as one student was absent on Day 1. Four of the five students’ scores increased on survey item #4: “I think I’m pretty good at PE class activities”, and one student gave a score of 7 out of 7 in both conditions. Having participated in the Frisky Fitness PE intervention for three days, four students felt more competent in the “with dogs” condition than they noted they did in regular PE class. One girl’s score went from a 1 in the “Regular PE” condition to a 7 in the “PE with dogs” condition.

In response to the statement, “I can’t do PE activities very well”, four out of five students’ scores decreased in the “with dogs” condition; i.e. they reported more disagreement with the negative statement when reflecting on their experience with the dogs during the pilot program. One student’s score went from a 6 in the “Regular PE” condition to a 1 in the “PE with dogs” condition; another’s went from a 7 to a 1. This is especially interesting since 3, 45-minutes class sessions was not enough time for skill improvement, nor did we provide an activity on Day 1 and again on Day 3, to see if students had actually improved at a given task or skill. While purely subjective, it seemed that the students simply felt better about themselves and their abilities when dogs were present during PE class.

We did not measure these theoretical improvements in performance (by using pre- and post- pilot fitness tests, for example). This study’s focal point was students’ feelings and perceptions about their own performance, and whether or not those feelings and perceptions would change for the better when dogs were added into the equation. And they did.

3. Pressure/Tension

One fundamental source of negative affect in youth physical activity and sport participation (e.g. anxiety) is perceived pressure from parents and coaches (Weiss, 1992). Anxiety and stress, in turn, are negative predictors of intrinsic motivation. Regarding PE specifically, children in one focus group expressed desire for lower-pressure, non-competitive physical activities (Cohen, 2000). Some physical education programs focus primarily on cooperative learning games and activities, with the notion that misbehavior and poor conduct often take place in competitive learning environments. (Rink, 2006). Many of these programs not only promote physical activity, but they also teach sport-specific skills, while emphasizing cooperation, communication, personal responsibility, respect for others, positive competition, critical thinking, and problem solving (Heidorn & Welch, 2010). Says University of Georgia’s Associate Dean for Research and Assessment, Brent Heidorn (referring to a psychosocial classroom environment that is more cooperative than competitive by design), “when a majority of the class becomes concerned about the needs, interests, and feelings of others, the environment can be extremely positive and rewarding for students and teachers alike.”

----- Human-canine interaction reduces physiological stress and perceived pressure/tension

In general, the presence of companion animals has a relaxing and calming effect on people (Robin & Bensel, 2008). Research specific to canine-assisted intervention has shown that dogs can ameliorate the effects of potentially stressful life events, and reduce levels of anxiety, loneliness and depression (Wells, 2007). Allen and colleagues (1991) observed that dog owners demonstrated significantly blunted sympathetic responses to a stress task when their pet dogs were present compared even with the presence of their spouses or friends. These facts, taken together, provide a strong case for the potential of dogs’ presence and involvement in PE to help foster a less stressful environment for both students and teachers.

Four out of five of our pilot students agreed more with the statement, “I am relaxed while doing PE class activities”, in the “PE with dogs” condition than the “Regular PE” condition, while one student gave the same score in both conditions. Our survey data showed a 14% decrease in students’ (perceived) felt pressure or tension in the “PE with dogs” condition than the “Regular PE” condition.

Dogs’ proven effectiveness in school-based interventions

Studies show that the presence and use of therapy dogs in academic settings can help improve student performance by reducing stress, and increasing motivation, focus, and task persistence, even where other interventions have failed (Jalongo, 2005. Beck, Katie, 2015). An extended series of studies in a learning setting have shown that animals capture and hold children’s attention and direct it outward, diminishing negative feelings such as agitation and aggression which, in turn, creates a better teaching and learning environment (Hart and Fine, 2000).

Canine-assisted reading programs, for example, provide a viable reference point for imagining the kind of effects therapy dogs might have on student motivation in a physical education setting. Reading aloud to dogs, children feel a sense of trust, knowing they will not be negatively criticized (Beck, 2015; Lane & Zavada, 2014). An accepting, non-judgmental bond can form between a child and a dog, which is very beneficial to the child’s motivation and attitude toward reading (Beck, 2015; Friesen, 2009). Dogs’ nonjudgmental nature, combined with the fact that children’s attention is focused outside the self when a dog is present, could curb the feelings of embarrassment and self-consciousness often associated with adolescents’ negative experiences in PE.

Dogs’ proven effectiveness in increasing people’s physical activity behavior

One sensible and convenient, and also highly effective strategy for helping people achieve recommended daily levels of physical activity is dog walking (Lentino, et al., 2012). Given the strong social bonds that exist between humans and dogs, it’s surprising that efforts to increase people’s physical activity levels have yet to fully tap into the potential of dog walking as a viable health intervention method. Existing research on the subject implies that the public health impact of incorporating dogs into a regular routine of daily walking appears substantial (Serpell, 1991). As the idea garners more attention, the impact of dog ownership on physical activity is receiving considerable research attention as a potential means of increasing total daily activity for a significant proportion of the population (Westgarth et al., 2013). In a study by James Serpell (1991) that looked at people’s physical activity levels both before and after adopting a dog, researchers found that adopters’ daily walking and time spent outdoors increased significantly (Siegel, 2004, 1993, 1990). Another study (Lentino, 2012) reported that people who walk their dogs have significantly greater levels of total physical activity compared with those who do not own a dog (or do not walk a dog they own).

The majority of dog walking studies that involve children, specifically, pertain to kids’ relationships with their families’ pet dogs. A recent study out of Liverpool concluded that promotion of supervised walking of suitable pet dogs may be an opportunity for increasing physical activity in 9-10 year old children (Westgarth, et al., 2013). As do many research efforts surrounding children’s physical activity behavior, Westgarth’s examination of the health benefits of regular contact with (pet) dogs adds to a growing body of counter-measures to address the

childhood overweight and obesity epidemic. While this particular study did not find significant correlation between pet dog ownership and children’s physical activity level or weight status, the authors conjectured this had to do with under-utilization of an opportunity that undoubtedly exists, but may not yet be fully understood.

Additional studies have looked at correlations between children and physical activity behavior in therapeutic settings. In a recent study about the potential benefits of hospital-based therapy dog walking programs, Vitztum et al. (2016) looked at the potential of therapy dog-walking to increase physical activity levels in children with capitol femoral epiphyses, or Blount’s disease. They found that physical activity levels were significantly increased during the intervention compared to before and after, as well as during the walking sessions themselves. Participants expressed high enthusiasm for the program, and 6 of the 7 participants attended 100% of the walking sessions when no restrictions to physical activity participation were present (Vitztum, et al., 2016). Furthermore, Siegel (2004) notes that dogs’ involvement in physical therapy helps children view therapy more as fun than hard work, which benefits the therapeutic process.

Many innovative programs are emerging that take into account, not only people’s need for physical exercise, but how dog walking offers reciprocal benefits at both ends of the leash. One example is Chico, CA-based graduate student, Danielle Allred’s, community service program in which high school students walk shelter dogs. She notes, “the unconventional nature of dog walking as a form of exercise may make it appealing for inactive or overweight youth, as it provides an alternative to more competitive forms of exercise” (Allred, 2013 – paper not peer reviewed).

In response to the question, “If you felt personally motivated to be physically active today, why do you think that is? If you did not feel motivated, why do you think that is?”, students in the pilot program responded with answers that included, “Yes, I felt more active and was motivated by the dogs”, “It’s a lot of fun learning something new from the dogs”, and “I like sports and I like the dogs”.

Combining successful strategies

A plethora of studies have looked at the motivating forces behind children’s general physical activity behavior. Other studies have looked at physical activity levels of children who live with pet dogs versus those who do not. However, only recently have researchers begun to delve into what it is or might be about people’s relationships with dogs that makes their presence conducive to children’s motivation toward physical activity.

One groundbreaking study by German researcher Ranier Wohlfarth and his team (2013) delved into this question. The research team put twelve overweight or obese children through two exercise programs, one that integrated a therapy dog into physically active exercises and games, and another that involved a human confederate in place of a dog. They predicted that making exercises for and with a dog would lead to higher levels of implicit motivation which would, in turn, predict higher performance (Wohlfarth, 2013).

The team’s findings supported their hypothesis; there was less passive behavior (e.g. sitting, standing, or lying down) in the dog trial as compared to the human confederate trial, and physical activity levels were higher across all five performance variables in the dog condition. According to Wohlfarth, the most remarkable difference between the dog and human condition was that the children walked faster over a longer period of time in the presence of the dog (Wohlfarth, 2013). Interestingly, questionnaires the students filled out found that there was no difference between dog and human condition in students’ self-reported ratings of motivation, which the team analyzed to mean that intrinsic motivation may not be a function of cognitive preferences, but rather stems from (phenomenology) rooted in the affective domain. Based on established motivation research, and their study’s findings, Wohlfarth proposed that in the presence of a dog children gain more pleasure from an activity, because the dog serves as an affectively hot stimulus and a natural incentive, therefore the implicit motivation for activity in the presence of a dog is strong (Wohlfarth, 2013).

In closing, animal-assisted activities provide opportunities for motivation, education, and recreation, all which enhance people’s health, happiness, and quality of life. The social learning strategies created and supported by canine interventions - as dogs are increasingly integrated into school settings to provide support to children academically, behaviorally, socially, emotionally, and physically (Beck, 2015) - could very well translate when adapted to physical education, and might offer an innovative new strategy for improving student motivation toward physical activity.


We used a mixed method research design to collect quantitative data from two customized versions of the Intrinsic Motivation Inventory (survey), each which represented one of two conditions: (perceived) “Regular PE” (i.e. without dogs present), and (perceived) “PE with dogs”. We collected supporting qualitative data from an optional text box on surveys, as well as from questions posed to our six pilot study participants during interviews.

Using surveys allowed us a relatively large and randomized sample population (n=90); gathering qualitative data from a smaller population (n=6), whose members personally experienced what survey takers only imagined or perceived as a hypothetical situation, added support to findings from our survey. Only two comments recorded could be considered unsupportive of our hypothesis. Those were, “I wouldn’t (enjoy having dogs in PE class) because I would be worried about the dogs getting hurt”, and “I would like to hang out with dogs, but not if they were too hyper”. The smaller study population was not random; its members were chosen specifically by their PE teacher because he felt they could benefit from this type of PE intervention. Therefore the only data we drew on from the pilot study were quotes from participants in describing, or answering specific questions related to, their personal experience in the program.

A random population of 90 children between the ages of 10 and 15 each filled out two different versions of the Intrinsic Motivation Inventory (IMI). 59% of survey-takers were female, 41% were male. 38% of survey takers were Caucasian/White, 26% were Latino/Hispanic, and the remainder were a combination of African, South Asian, and Middle Eastern Indian.

Each version of the survey consisted of 13 questions that measured kids’ self-reported “feelings about PE”. We controlled for order effects by randomizing the order in which kids filled out the surveys; 34 participants randomly selected the “Regular PE” survey first, while 56 participants randomly filled out the “PE with dogs” survey first. The titles of the surveys were not visible to participants when they chose which to fill out first and which to fill out second.

Links to the two online surveys were posted to the primary social media page for a non-profit dog rescue in Kern County, CA that has 561,000+ followers, and whose posts reach up to 2 million people per week on Facebook. The links were live for six weeks. The only criteria for participants was that they needed to be between the ages of 10 and 15 years old to fill out the survey. Children of both genders, all ages across the stated age spectrum, and multiple ethnic backgrounds filled out the surveys.

Separately, six 7th grade students from a middle school in Bakersfield, CA participated in a 3-day pilot program called Frisky Fitness. During three PE class periods over three consecutive days, volunteers from (the same) local dog rescue’s therapy dog program brought certified therapy dogs (with gentle temperaments but also higher energy levels than some of the others) in to participate with students in specially designed PE games, such as “Loose Leash Leadership”, which involves students leading dogs through obstacle courses on leash; and “Human Says”, a game modeled after “Simon Says”, in which a Frisky Fitness “coach” leads students in running through an aerobic routine, as (the coach) calls out actions of varying levels of speed and difficulty. Meanwhile, students are instructed to keep their eyes on the dogs – whose leashes are held loosely by their handlers – and to watch changes in the dogs’ behavior based on (the students’) different energy states from lower to higher intensity (i.e. Do the dogs’ stand up or wag their tails when the kids’ energy levels increase? Do the dogs relax when the kids are moving more slowly?).

According to the school’s PE teacher, students who were selected to participate in the project had “either struggled with traditional PE activities (mainly cardiovascular), or had shown a general disinterest in PE, or both”. The majority of the students who participated in the pilot program were medically classified as obese. Students in the pilot program took the same IMI surveys as did online participants; they took the “Regular PE” survey before the pilot program started, and the “PE with dogs” survey after it ended, answering open-ended interview questions about their personal experience in the pilot program throughout the three sessions.

For data analysis, we used a within-subjects (one-tailed) T-test, as we projected early on, from informal reviewing of survey data, that results would support our hypothesis.


1. (Perceived) “Regular PE” (without dogs present); ND condition: When questions referred to "PE class activities", participants were told this meant - for example - things like running track, playing a game or team sport, or going through an obstacle course.

2. (Perceived) “PE with dogs”; D condition: Participants were asked to imagine a group of therapy dogs had joined a PE class in which they were enrolled. They were asked to answer the questions based on how they imagined they might feel about - or did feel at the prospect of - participating in this type of PE class or intervention. When questions referred to "PE class activities with dogs", this meant - for example - things like running track with a dog, playing a game or team sport in which dogs participated as ‘team players’, or running through an obstacle course while guiding a dog through the course on a leash.


Both surveys were created and posted on a website called, and researcher requested on social media that kids between the ages of 10 and 15 fill out the surveys. The website controlled for potential repeat survey-takers by allowing for each survey to be completed only once from each individual IP address. One survey was labeled D (for “dog”); the other was labeled ND (for “No Dog”); this was for internal purposes only, and nowhere on the survey was it specified what the letters stood for. Students could choose one link or the other first, and were instructed to fill out the remaining survey afterward. 56 participants randomly answered the “ND” survey first, while 34 participants randomly chose the “D” survey first.


Surveys in both conditions were customized versions of the Intrinsic Motivation Inventory (IMI), which measures predictors of intrinsic motivation in the following categories: Interest/Enjoyment, Perceived Competence, Value/Usefulness, Felt Pressure and Tension, and

Perceived choice. This multidimensional measurement device is intended to assess participants’ subjective experience (or in the case of our study, perceived subjective experience) related to a target activity. Questions are answered using a 7-point Likert scale. According to the authors of the IMI order effects of item presentation appear to be negligible, and the inclusion or exclusion of specific subscales appears to have no impact on the others. We chose the subscales that were most relevant to the issue we set out to explore. According to the survey’s authors (Deci & Ryan, 1984), Interest/Enjoyment is the primary self-report measure of intrinsic motivation.

Versions of varying lengths and differing compositions have been used, and found to be reliable. In our surveys, IMI items were modified slightly to fit specific activities. For example, the item that generically read “I enjoy this activity” was changed to “I enjoy PE class activities”. These adjustments are made by researchers so that questions fit the parameters of their respective studies, without effecting the instrument’s reliability or validity (Ryan and Deci, 2000). Items within the subscales overlap considerably, although randomizing their presentation, as we did, made this less pronounced to participants.

----- Customized Questionnaire(s)

The “Regular PE” or “ND” survey appeared this way to participants

Hello and thank you for participating! Please answer all questions in the order they appear. Your answers are 100% confidential; your name will not appear anywhere in relation to this survey. No one else but the study’s author will see your answers. Please answer the following questions regarding your feelings about (a perceived) “PE Class”. Answer as honestly as possible, based on how you feel right now. When a question refers to "PE class activities", this means -- for example -- things like running track, playing a game or team sport, or going through an obstacle course. *The first question is listed as #6 because the first five questions asked for name, age, grade level, sex, and ethnicity.

Circle the number that most closely reflects how you feel.

1 = Not at all true; 4 = Somewhat true; 7 = Very true

* 6. I enjoy PE class

7. I think I’m pretty good at PE class activities.

8. I do not feel nervous at all while doing PE activities.

9. I believe PE class is valuable.

10. I would participate in PE class even if I didn’t have to.

11. PE class is fun.

12. I don’t think PE class is important.

13. I am relaxed while doing PE class activities.

14. I think PE class is boring.

15. I feel tense while doing PE class activities.

16. I only participate in PE class because it’s required.

17. I can’t do PE activities very well.

18. If given the opportunity to either participate in PE class activities, or sit and look at my phone or chat with friends, I would choose to participate in class.

The “PE with dogs” or “D” condition survey was identical, with the exception of having “with dogs” added to each question or statement. For example: I enjoy PE class with dogs; I think I’m pretty good at PE class activities with dogs; I do not feel nervous at all while doing PE activities with dogs. It’s introduction appeared as follows:

Hello and thank you for participating! Please answer all questions in the order they appear. Your answers are 100% confidential; your name will not appear anywhere in relation to this survey. No one else but the study’s author will see your answers. Please answer the following questions regarding your feelings about (a perceived) “PE Class with dogs”. Answer as honestly as possible, based on how you feel right now. When a question refers to "PE class activities with dogs", this means -- for example -- things like running around the track with a dog, playing a game or team sport in which dogs participate as activity or gameplay partners, or going through an obstacle course while guiding a dog through the course on a leash. *The first question is listed as #6 because the first five questions asked for name, age, grade level, sex, and ethnicity.


----- Quantitative: Mean subscale scores on the IMI across all five categories of intrinsic motivation predictors – i.e. Interest/Enjoyment, Perceived Competence, Pressure/Tension, Perceived Choice, and Value/Usefulness – were significantly higher in the “PE with dogs” condition than the “Regular PE” condition. Using a within-subjects, paired sample t test, we analyzed survey data to determine whether the differences in mean scores - for one study population across two study conditions (perceived “Regular PE” and perceived “PE with dogs”) - were significant in each of the five predictive categories. A paired t test was used versus a repeated measures ANOVA, because the independent variable (“PE”) had only two variations (whereas a repeated measures ANOVA could’ve been used if the independent variable had 3 or more variations).

----- Qualitative:

At the end of the first and second session of the pilot program, volunteers interviewed each student individually, asking for three words that described their (felt) experience in PE class (with dogs) that day. The word fun was offered more than any other, with happy or happiness coming in second. With one student absent on the first day of the program, 5 students answered the interview questions on Day 1, while all six students answered the questions on Day 2. Out of a total of 33 descriptive words offered by students to describe their experience over a two-day period, the word fun came up 8 times, or approximately 25% of the time. Each student was asked at the end of all three sessions whether or not they enjoyed PE class (with dogs) that day; and also, whether or not they had fun, specifically. 100% of responses were affirmative. When asked what was most fun about class each day, out of 17 total responses, 3 responses included the word play or playing (with dogs). When asked if they felt more motivated in PE class with dogs than they (perceive) they do in Regular PE, 100% of students said yes, with their reasons being “playing with dogs”, “fun”, “learning something new”, “dogs help you move”, “we got to do more than normal PE”, “getting to snuggle with dogs”, “I like dogs”, and “dogs are happy so they make me happy and make me smile”.


Despite its complexity, the public health benefits of having a physically active youth population outweigh the difficulties associated with implementing multifactor interventions (Wallhead & Buckworth, 2004) like Frisky Fitness. Proven health benefits of the human-canine bond are effecting positive change in a widening range of contexts, and aren’t limited to physical health, but more holistically address the social and emotional needs of people (Wallhead & Buckworth, 2004).

Historically, dogs have augmented humans’ capabilities in the ways of physical strength, speed, stamina, mobility, energetic efficiency, and cooperative strategy as a social species. Adapting the successful co-evolutionary partnership between ancestral wolf and primitive human, to the modern-day context of (elementary and) middle school PE, could help elevate children’s perceptions about physical activity from negative to positive, or from positive to more positive, and might correlate with sustained, self-regulated health and fitness practices throughout a lifetime.


In the digital age, the strength of children’s motivation to be physically active must outcompete the virtual inertia born of sitting and staring at screens. Considering the growing body of research on the proven efficacy of canine intervention in multiple contexts, in combination with the critical public health crisis of childhood overweight and obesity (and related illnesses), further development, implementation, and analyses of PE interventions like Frisky Fitness are justifiable, if not critically important.

We know that petting dogs lowers blood pressure, slows heart rate, lessens depression and anxiety- producing neurochemicals, increases serotonin and dopamine, and can enhance children’s academic performance, social competence, and mental health. Traditional Animal-Assisted Activities (AAA) draw on the calming effect dogs have on people, and this generally happens with both dogs and people sitting still.

The Frisky Fitness concept taps into a different, more active element of the human-canine bond. Honoring the primal relationship our ancestors shared with wolves – which involved long-distance endurance running to tire out herds of prey animals, and hauling massive amounts of “dead meat” back to resident camps - could be a highly effective way to change children’s negative associations with “exercise”, by pairing movement not with pain, discomfort, embarrassment or punishment, but instead with fun, playfulness, excitement, and the special kind of joy that only time spent with dogs seems to draw forth.

In this type of AAI, children’s interactions with dogs would increase heart rate, rather than slow it down. Not in the way a stressful event would; not in the way hearts would race in response to, say, being chased by a predator, or taunted by the cruel voice of adolescent self-consciousness; not in a way that reflects a dump of cortisol into the bloodstream from an autonomic nervous system on fight-or-flight overdrive. But rather, in the way our hearts might’ve raced while chasing down and outlasting our prey, immersed in the flow state that defined our lives in those primitive days, with our canine hunting partners – the wolves - running right alongside.


The specific form this project would take changed countless times, and I never actually made the decision between completing a thesis or a culminating project; this became both.

My fundamental interest was always in looking at the motivation factor; not necessarily measured by increases in children’s physical activity performance. But rather, I wanted to know if the presence and/or involvement of dogs in PE class would significantly influence the choices children made about whether or not to engage in physical activity behavior when given the choice. I devised several prototypes for an experiment to test this which, in the end, didn’t come to fruition (*for various reasons, discussed in a later paragraph). However, we were able to ask a couple of questions on the IMI, in the Perceived Choice category, that gave us an idea of how our results in this area might’ve turned out (or might turn out in the future).

Students responded to the following statements on the IMI surveys using a 7-point Likert scale:

1. I would participate in PE class even if I didn’t have to.

2. If given the opportunity to either participate in PE class, or sit and look at my phone or chat with friends, I would choose to participate in class.

3. I would participate in PE with dogs even if I didn’t have to.

4. If given the opportunity to either participate in PE class with dogs, or sit and look at my phone or chat with friends, I would choose to participate in class.

Survey results showed an increase of 15% in mean scores for this category when students imagined dogs being factored into a (perceived) PE class. In looking at our pilot program participants’ ratings on these statements, scores varied from 1 to 7 in the “Regular PE” condition, while all six students circled 7 – the highest possible score - on these statements in the “PE with dogs” condition. The most significant increases in scores between the two conditions being J.’s; she circled a 1 in the “Regular PE” condition, and a 7 in the “PE with dogs” condition re: the statement, “I would participate in PE class even if I didn’t have to”. And C., who chose 2 and 7, respectively, on the same statement.

Regarding the statement about choosing to participate in PE, even when given the option of sitting, looking at a cell phone, and/or chatting with friends, only one of the six students rated the statement a 7 for both conditions. The other five students’ ratings increased from the “Regular PE” to the “PE with dogs” condition. While this can only serve, in the scope of this project, as anecdotal conjecture, it seems telling of how dogs might affect students’ intrinsically motivated, self-regulated physical activity behavior.

*Working with both kids and live animals presented unique challenges, two of which were safety considerations and logistics regarding number and selection of dogs, and number of student participants. The dogs we selected to participate in the pilot program are certified therapy dogs, so their even temperament and gentle demeanor worked well. However, a more developed version of the program will call for dogs with both calm demeanors and enough energetic to run and play actively for extended periods of time. Dogs will also need extensive loose leash training, proofed at multiple speeds – i.e. walking, jogging, running, and sprinting, and will need to be desensitized to PE equipment as well.

While these quandaries pose challenges, they are certainly not insurmountable, and can even empower students to become part of the training process when worked into the curriculum.To my knowledge, nothing quite like this has yet been done. For this reason, extensive investigation will be necessary to address the program’s intricacies, difficulties, and most importantly, its potential to effect real, positive, and lasting change.


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