'As educators, we have a duty to explore every means that we can to support pupils through the challenges of growing up'
Head of prep at Leweston School, Alanda Phillips, writes about her positive experiences working alongside dogs in the classroom.
It was around 10 years ago that I first became aware of the potential dogs can hold in educational environments.
A houseparent once brought her dog into my class as her dog-sitter had let her down. As my colleague listened to children read, it was clear the pupils' focus was much more on reading to the dog than the adult! So, this soon became a weekly event with every child taking their turn to read to the dog, receiving a paw print in their reading record and a paw ‘high five’ if they were lucky.
Dogs listen without any judgement, and retain their attention, no matter how many times a reader may pause, stutter or stumble. This provides children with a really powerful listening environment, and it began to impact on their progress. Within just weeks, our most reluctant readers were arriving at school in the morning and asking to read first. With one small change, we had managed to create that most desirable of traits; a passion for reading.
Spending time with dogs has a fantastic calming influence on children; the need to care for something, to have a sense of control (in a world in which they can feel very stripped of this) and someone who will always like them, and be keen to spend time with them, are powerful motivators. I have watched children who have started school with a profound lack of confidence, gently grow and blossom, as a result of their interactions with our school dogs when out on daily class walks.
This calming influence can be used more widely to powerful effect too, and as a ‘dog-friendly’ school, we encourage the children to take a break during their senior exam years by taking a dog for a walk. Not only does this motivate them to get fresh air and exercise, but it gives them a chance to talk to a fantastic listener, and can provide emotional support when they need it most. Evidence demonstrates that therapy dogs can reduce stress physiologically, by increasing levels of cortisol and by triggering the release of oxytocin, which increases a feeling of trust. Dog owners will be well aware of this fact, and often turn to their dogs in times of stress.
Of course, there is always a need to consider all the potential pitfalls with dogs on site, and alongside tight regulations for the disposal of their waste, schools need to put careful plans in place to support any children who may not be used to, or indeed scared of, dogs. Overcoming their fear can be a fantastic learning opportunity, when carefully supported by a knowledgeable adult.
In a time when mental health issues are at an all-time high in children and young people, we have a duty to explore every means that we can to support them through the challenges of growing up. With profound classroom impact, and such a positive effect on wellbeing, I’m delighted to see more and more schools inviting dogs in.