Background and philosophy
The leadership of Ashgate Primary School encourages interaction with school dogs within the remit of therapy and wellbeing practice. Over a period of time researching the practice, risk assessing and seeking guidance from group such as Pets as Therapy (PAT), Dogs Helping Kids UK, Dogs for Good, and schools where therapy dogs have been introduced, the school decided to trial the introduction of 2 therapy dogs for pupils at the school over 2019.
Why have a ‘therapy or wellbeing dog? Dogs can’t understand us or speak!
Of course, dogs cannot speak; but they are great listeners and the right dogs are excellent when it comes to empathy. This is why so many schools across the UK are introducing dogs into their settings and having ‘school dogs’, ‘reading dogs’ and ‘therapy pets’. These dogs are in attendance periodically during the school year. They are normally known to the school and often owned by a member of the school staff or school itself. They become an integral part of the school teaching team and are highly valued by the school and the children alike. Their attendance is regular and therefore seen as a central part of school life. Dogs that visit schools must be risk assessed and with their personality, history and temperament well known.
Dogs as a therapy
School dogs often work with and support children through difficult times in their lives such as those with anxiety or depression, those who find friendships challenging, or any case where comfort is needed. Support can often be given to children with additional needs, however, their presence benefits a wide variety of children, regardless of personal circumstance. They become a non-judgmental, non-demanding and unconditional friend. They must be incredibly calm, gentle, have a very unassuming nature, and as such, completely suited to being accessible to young people on a regular basis.
A dog as a calming influence
Many adults are apprehensive about new or challenging situations, which can be very daunting. Young people are no different. Research (and experience) shows that young people too can become nervous and stressed when in difficult circumstances or when the pressures of life are high. However, when a risk assessed, passive and friendly dog enters the group, they often become more relaxed, less self-conscious and calm, owing to the fact that dogs are non-judgemental. Therapy dogs provide comfort, encourage positive social behaviours, enhance self-esteem, motivate speech and inspire young people to have fun.
Pupils who are specifically targetted for dog therapy/reading are selected by staff and are those who would benefit most from this intervention (including the obvious need that the child is not overly fearful of animals); normally young people who lack confidence, or have difficulty with communication. Parents would be consulted in advanceif their child is selected as one who would benefit from individual targetted timewith any school dog.
I thought dogs were not allowed on school site and I have been told to not bring my pet dog on the playground; what is the difference?
Schools comply with the Health and Safety at Work Act and are required to consider the act when agreeing to having animals on school site. Other considerations such as Risk Assessments and Public Liability are acted on. It is true that most schools, including ours, have a general ‘no dogs’ policy, and with good reason. Allowing pets on site that have not been correctly risk assessed or without a specific purpose can lead to difficulties, as access to them is not managed or controlled by the school, or indeed accountable to it.
Therapy animals are managed and are introduced to the school over a period of time, starting with short orientation visits ensuring that the dogs is comfortable with the environment. They become familiar with the setting and children and are given time to adjust. Most importantly they are subject to a controlled risk assessment. Their role is directly managed and overseen by a staff member whilst general pets are not. It is key to remember that animals used as therapy or for other specific purpose are more than pets, they are in essence working animals with specific tasks.
Who are our school dog?
‘Molly’is cared for by Mrs Forte. She is a chocolate labrador who was adopted following her owner suffering from a long term illness. She is placid and loves being fussed. Her temperament, common with the breed, means that she is ideal for working with children. Children are naturally drawn to her calm manner and relaxed posture. She is a great listener and loves being patted and fussed.
‘Fred’is a rescue collie who lives with Mr Seargent. He is an established school worker and attends another school in Derbyshire. His primary role has historically been to support children with anxiety issues and a pupil with significant Autistic Spectrum Disorder challenges, but often spending time with him is used or seen as a reward by many pupils. He has a skill of putting children at ease, listening carefully when they are talking or reading to him and then, more often than not, falling asleep with his head at their feet. He snores, which the children find very amusing.
Common questions regarding therapy dogs in school
My child does not like dogs and is frightened of them
Any child who is fearful of dogs will not have to directly be with them, although they may see them around the school. Children will always be informed if a school dog is to be present when they enter a room or are in the vicinity. Children will have a choice. Access to school therapy dogs will always be closely controlled. In order to make sure children do not miss out, other therapy pets, such as guinea pigs or other smaller animals will be introduced soon alongside our family of hens..
My child has an allergy to dogs
As with children who are fearful of dogs, no individual will be made to work directly with them and therefore the risk of allergy reaction is minimal. The school successfully manages many clergy risks and an allergy to animals will be managed in the same manner. No child will be forced to be with a dog if they have an allergy or fear.