It’s been a silent and stealthy occurrence. Without a strategic plan or a national campaign, quietly it’s happened – dogs are invading our schools.
I’ve been a Head and school leader long enough to remember the days when the mere mention of a pooch coming anywhere near children would be the cause of a severe frown and a hasty scan through the multitude of health and safety reasons why canines belong in kennels or at home and nowhere near schools. Unless of course accompanied by the local constabulary brought in to sniff the contents of Year 10 lockers (which was once debated at a previous school I worked). Suddenly they appear to be everywhere.
This seems to have started with introducing dogs to support with learning difficulties or having particular needs. Dogs Helping Kids was founded in 2003 and still one of the few organisations in the country training and assessing dogs to work in schools as both educational and therapeutic aids. What’s significant is their claim that the impact these dogs can have on children and teenagers in the educational environment which they describe as ‘amazing and changes lives forever’. It is their simple vision to have a DHK School Dog working in every school, college and library across the country!
The evidence on this sort of dog-use is pretty impressive, including improved social attention and social behaviour and raised mood; positive influence on stress-related parameters such as cortisol, heart rate, and blood pressure; reductions in self-reported fear and anxiety; and impact on mental and physical health, especially cardiovascular diseases. Beetz et al. (2012) suggest that a significant influence is the activation of oxytocin, a key hormone for social bonding.
But stories are emerging that it’s not just for the benefit of the more vulnerable students. The Guardian ran a story in 2017 about Rolo, a Labrador, who works at Huntington School, York, where John Tomsett is Head. It took two years to persuade Tomsett to allow the dog in – now he’s a huge part of school life, with him having played the key role in an initiative to eliminate playground litter.
Fast forward to 2019 and I’m writing this blog in my office with Cocoa, a two-year old Cockerpoo, in her bed beside me. She’s an occasional visitor to both Impington and Witchford Village Colleges, the schools in our Trust, and was a key member of staff (aka ‘Head of Behaviour’) at The Rise School, a special school for children with autism, where she worked alongside her owner, Sarah Roscoe, the Head. She also now accompanies her mummy, in her new role as the Exec Head of TBAP East, to the five schools she oversees. She’s a trained Pet as Therapy dog and is delightfully received by students and staff alike wherever she goes. The impact she has on young and old is immensely palpable.
Of course not every dog would be successful in a school-based setting – mind you, neither would every adult. This isn’t a case of bringing in the family pet because there’s no-one at home. So choose your pooch wisely and get them trained and assessed – funny enough, just like we would any adult who works in our schools.
Who let the dogs in? Who cares… they’re here to stay and their impact can be immense.
References and further information http://www.dogshelpingkids.co.uk/
Beetz, A., Uvnäs-Moberg K., Julius H., and Kotrschal K. (2012) Psychosocial and Psychophysiological Effects of Human-Animal Interactions: The Possible Role of Oxytocin, Frontiers in Psychology, 3: 234. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3408111/ https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/mar/28/teaching-support-dog-school-teach-read
Rob Campbell is a founding member of HTRT and is CEO of The Morris Education Trust in Cambridgeshire