'Our dogs offer a welcome distraction from the strains and stresses of a busy day'

Posted on: 29 Mar 2019
Posted by: Nick Brown

Nick Brown, assistant head pastoral at Shiplake College, writes how Ernie the Cockapoo increases mental wellbeing by helping pupils to talk about their feelings.

The challenges, pressures and temptations facing modern youngsters are frightening. They seem to mature quicker, party earlier and face a barrage of online material which can be alluring and, ultimately, highly dangerous. Guiding them through this maze/minefield can be perplexing and parents and schools need to work together to educate them whilst not putting an end to their socialising and fun. All this is piled on top of the more ‘traditional’ pressures of growing up; self-image, changing bodies and chemicals in the body, friendship issues.

Engaging parents is crucial. Regular items in the weekly school bulletin alerting parents to the latest trends and concerns or recommending a new app or website and inviting parents in for discussion forums are just some of the ways in which we reach out to families. Personal, social, health and economic education (PHSEE) and digital literacy lessons, assemblies and visiting speakers are how we address these issues with our pupils.

As pastoral deputy and designated safeguarding lead (DSL), I deal more and more with the fallout of social media misuse. Despite much of this taking place at home or in the holidays there is no way of separating this from school. Government statutory safeguarding publication, Keeping Children Safe in Education places great emphasis on the home-school relationship and stresses that schools have a duty to have contextual knowledge of a child’s life. This means having an understanding of the child’s life outside of school as well as within.

How do we help them? The advice and support available is extensive. A number of fantastic mental health charities provide free advice, support and materials and keeping up with their output can be a challenge.

A recent BBC News article by Sean Coughlan struck a particular chord with me. It stated, “Every school needs a dog as stress-buster”. It reported that Sir Anthony Seldon, a long-time advocate of mental health and wellbeing, (‘happiness’) speaking at the University of Buckingham Wellbeing in Education Conference, talked about technologies. He also touched on a more ‘low tech’ approach. Dogs! Education Secretary Damian Hinds, speaking at the same conference said that ‘pets can really help’.

My view is that apps and ‘technologies’ are helpful in managing mental health and wellbeing but nothing can replace talking. A previous headmaster of Shiplake College, Peter Lapping was often heard saying that children need three things; ‘time, time and more time’. In busy schools with overstretched staff this is a challenge but, certainly, we should strive to provide opportunities and time to talk. Getting boys in particular, to talk is often a challenge, especially if it is about their feelings. Enter Ernie, my two year old Cockapoo.

It is well established that playing with and petting dogs (pets in general) lowers the stress hormone cortisol. Being with a dog after a stressful event reduces the levels of this hormone in the body. It also increases levels of the stress-reducing hormone oxytocin. They can also lower your blood pressure; dogs promote relaxation and may reduce the symptoms of stress. Taking a dog for a walk for as little as 10 minutes takes you away from what it is that stresses you. It also, of course gets you some fresh air and exercise.

If I have a difficult conversation or if a pupil is upset there is no doubt that the presence of Ernie helps. Petting him helps to relax the pupil and acts as a form of diversion. A walk with Ernie avoids the awkward office scenario where a pupil is expected to sit down and unload. It is well known that boys ‘walk and talk’. Walking avoids stilted conversation. I have colleagues who allow pupils to take their dogs for a walk. This gives them some responsibility and purpose which they may not be getting from other forms of interaction or responsibility. At busy times of day Ernie often potters around outside and it is amazing to see how many pupils make a bee-line for him. He, of course, laps up the attention. On one occasion recently a colleague asked to ‘borrow’ Ernie to help them with a particularly difficult situation.

There is nothing contrived about our use of dogs around the school campus. We have over 30 on site at any one time, but none are specifically trained (there are, of course, amazing reading dogs and dogs that work with autistic children) and we make no special claims about their efficacy. They are just part of the Shiplake community and pupils and (most) staff seem to love them - they even have their own dog collar in Shiplake blazer colours! The dogs offer a welcome distraction from the strains and stresses of a busy day; just a bit of fun, you could say. Parents also buy into this. At a recent open morning and meeting for new parents it was staggering how often the conversation turned to dogs. I had, of course, given Ernie a plug in my talks on pastoral care and this seemed to resonate with many parents with whom I talked afterwards. If nothing else, those with pets of their own liked the idea that their sons and daughters would be surrounded by them when at school.

Today, Ernie has already met a number of pupils and is sitting, fairly patiently under my desk waiting to be let out. When he is, he will lie down in the middle of the drive outside my office, wait for pupils to pass, roll over on his back and wait to be tickled. I’m pretty sure he enjoys his school days!

About Nick Brown

Nick Brown is assistant head pastoral at Shiplake College in Oxfordshire.