Teaching therapy dogs to read human faces and emotions, to help kids who have autism

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Misty Ginicola is an associate professor of counseling and school psychology at Southern Connecticut State University. She works as a training and evaluation associate through the Mutt-i-grees program (a social and emotional learning skills curriculum for children in grades pre-K to 12) created by Yale University and North Shore Animal League. Although the Mutt-i-grees program is for all children, it has also been used extensively with children with developmental disabilities, including those with autism, who learn how to develop social and emotional skills, such as reading people’s faces and emotions.

At Southern, Misty conducts research on multicultural competence in counseling, which includes using creative strategies, such as therapy dogs, in counseling sessions.

Ginicola says people tend to express their emotions mostly with their eyes and mouth and read each others emotions by looking at their eyes and mouth.

Dogs also can read people’s emotions by looking at their eyes and mouth, but don’t do that with each other, perhaps because they show their emotions with their entire body.

Children with autism generally have difficulty identifying emotions and reading social cues. Their gaze is usually not focused on the eyes and mouth. Ginicola said therapy dogs are used to teach kids with autism these cues.

Children with autism tend to have a unique connection with dogs and animals, even as they struggle to connect with people.

“Dogs are primed and ready to be teachers of social and emotional intelligence,” Ginicola says.