Dominican University study: Working with animals increases self-esteem in children

Students from Dominican University of California worked with Afshin Gharib, a professor of psychology, to survey children and young teens participating in weeklong humane summer camps.

Marin Humane educators have always believed that children who learn to be kind to animals develop empathy and compassion.

“Now we have the data to prove it,” and that’s thanks to a Dominican University study, said Darlene Blackman, director of community outreach at Marin Humane.

Over the past three years, Dr. Afshin Gharib, a professor of psychology at Dominican, has been working with his students to survey children, ages 7 to 18, who participated in a weeklong humane education summer camp offered at the animal shelter’s Novato campus.

Blackman joined Gharib this week to present the study at the National Humane Education Conference in Seattle, while 19-year-old Danielle Davis, a second-year psychology major at Dominican, presented at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research in Memphis.

The study shows that working with animals not only teaches empathy toward animals and other people but it improves self-esteem.

“That’s the interesting message,” Gharib said. “The children who participated in the camp would also build self-confidence … and more internalized locus of control, meaning, they felt more in control of the paths in their lives.”

The presentations were on data collected over the past two years only, Gharib said. Overall, he and his students have worked with about 700 children in programs at the Oregon Humane Society and an animal rescue team in Iowa.

In Marin, Gharib and his students issued a survey on the first day of each camp. The test included measures of self-esteem, locus of control, attitudes toward animals and empathy toward other people. The same test was administered on the final day of camp. They were able to test 365 children.

By the end of the week, scores improved by about 5 percent for attitudes toward animals and 2 percent of increase in self-esteem; children actually showed improvement on every measure.

“What’s most impressive is that in only a weeks’ time the children showed improvement,” Gharib said. “This shows why humane education is useful, and it’s valuable to support these programs.”

The Novato nonprofit offers one-week camps for children in grades 1 through 12. The participants learn how to care for pets, participate in crafts, games and other activities designed to teach humane treatment of animals.

Each year, they are able to accommodate about 220 children in its summer programs. Registration is full already for this summer, which will see about 250 children, said Lisa Bloch, spokeswoman for Marin Humane.

Blackman, who has been working at the Marin Humane for the past 25 years said the nonprofit leaders are excited about the results and hope to expand their summer and after-school humane education programs.

“Our programs are making a difference for kids,” she said, noting that the data is validating.

As for Davis, she’s excited to be able travel and to share her work.

“I was able to learn more about what makes humans empathetic and the role that animals can play in that process,” she said. “Fortunately, our research yielded positive results.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Adrian RodriguezAdrian Rodriguez covers Mill Valley, Belvedere, Tiburon, Corte Madera and Larkspur for the Marin IJ. He also writes the weekly business column Movers & Shakers, which appears in Friday’s paper. Reach the author at arodriguez@marinij.com or follow Adrian on Twitter: @adrianrrodri. Reach the author at arodriguez@marinij.com .