The power of pets

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The educational and therapeutic effects that an animal can bring are well recognised, but what about their potential in the secondary school environment, especially with hard-to-reach students? Teacher Isobel Durrant takes a look.

Teaching in one of London’s rougher schools, I used to fantasise about having a dog – a collie to be precise – with me in the classroom. It would have had the dual role of keeping children in their seats and on task and giving comfort and affection to those whose home lives were less than happy.

Although that dream was never realised, I have witnessed the positive reactions from secondary pupils to dogs visiting classrooms. Sullen, silent teenagers transformed into sociable young people; withdrawn children into happy smiling children. And I am not alone in remarking on these benefits. Increasingly, the educational and therapeutic effects that an animal can bring to a school community are being recognised.

In London, Marion Jones, from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, has been involved in a pioneering project. For 10 weeks, she has worked with a small group of pupils aged 11 to 15, all of whom have been excluded from classes in their mainstream school. 

The pupils have studied animal law and looked at learning styles for both humans and animals. Ms Jones does not even take a real dog with her, just a life-sized cuddly toy called Stuffy, yet results have been more than encouraging. 

The pupils, who include those with learning difficulties and chaotic home lives, have responded well to learning about animal care and animal behaviours, developing skills of empathy and understanding. She hopes the pupils will be able to visit Battersea, and plans that they will take a Good Citizens mock exam, one of a range of tests developed by the Kennel Club to promote socially acceptable dogs and responsible owners.

Elsewhere, at Southampton’s Cantell Maths and Technology College, a real dog has worked his magic. Oscar the labrador slotted perfectly into the school philosophy of mutual respect and restorative solutions. He was welcomed by the whole school community. Parents were as delighted as their children, seeing it as a great way to introduce city children to pets. Just two out of 160 staff voiced misgivings, saying they would be uncomfortable around a dog. The school ensured they would not have any contact.

The school did its homework thoroughly before adopting Oscar. Terry Baudains, the school business manager, explained: “We spoke to dog owners, the RSPCA and looked at American and Canadian models.”

The school followed advice to take on a larger rather than a smaller dog, aged around 12 months. One teacher adopted Oscar, and gradually the dog was inducted to the school and his new role.

Mr Baudains continued: “First, he was gently introduced to the environment with no children present. Then he was with children, but not working with them. Over time, he built up to being with the children.”

It was important that one member of staff adopted Oscar for the school, and took overall responsibility for him. “Being in school full-time would be too much for most dogs,” Amy Watson, also from Battersea, explained. “Dogs need an owner who takes responsibility for caring for them, and with whom they form a firm bond. They also need a suitable environment – space, a bed, toys, appropriate food and water – and time to rest and relax.”

Often it is the more challenged and vulnerable children who benefit most obviously from a dog’s benign presence. One counsellor, working with bullied children, started to take her dog to sessions. Children who had been previously uncommunicative opened up, talking more to the dog than the counsellor. That positive effect spins out into the rest of the school community.

Barbara Mills, school secretary at Sacred Heart School in London, where two semi-feral cats regularly share her office space in the reception area, agrees. 

“It changes the atmosphere. It’s unusual. People comment. Some children come down to see them, and they always report if they see the cats outside and notice something wrong with them.” 

Such noticing builds community, as well as promoting responsibility towards animals, and creating understanding of their needs. 

Back at Cantell, children of all abilities make time for Oscar, reading to him or just enjoying his company. Staff also make time to visit him. The teacher responsible for him is not at the school at the moment, so Oscar has resumed other duties by his master’s side. His presence is missed. 

In the long term, if Oscar does not return, the school hopes to have another dog. To other schools thinking of following Cantell’s example, Mr Baudains offers this advice: “Think it through from start to finish and consult everyone – parents, children, staff, the local authority. As long as you get the right dog and are prepared to allow it time to bed in, it works really well.”

For those schools unable or unwilling to undertake such a commitment, visiting dogs may be the answer. Animal charities are often happy to bring dogs into schools for assemblies or class visits. Such visits allow pupils, some of whom may be fearful of dogs, to meet relaxed, confident animals with no history of aggression or anxiety, and learn about safety around dogs as well as responsible dog ownership. So both the dogs and the pupils gain.

Taking this idea a step further, Paws for Progress has matched inmates at Youth Offenders Institution Polmont in Scotland with rescue dogs. Working with Dogs Trust, the offenders follow a dog training course. The project is mutually beneficial; the trained dogs stand a better chance of being rehomed, and the young people receive vocational and educational training, improve their employability, develop social skills and self-confidence. 

The project’s blog page speaks volumes. Here, the trainee dog handlers have written descriptions of their dogs. Each is a vignette of pride, hope and affection. Meanwhile, back at Battersea, three older teenagers are carrying out their community service. They do not get to do the most glamourous jobs; there is a lot of cleaning kennels, and filling “kong toys” with wet dog food. 

Around adults, the three have poor interpersonal skills, make no eye contact and a shrug is the most common response to a question. This changes when the dogs are present. 

“They smile, laugh, look you in the eye and show real warmth,” reports a staff member working with them. “The dog removes pressure. It doesn’t judge them; they don’t have to prove themselves with it and they become more relaxed. The dog elevates their confidence. They’ll talk about the dog and show real empathy.”

Of course you would expect Battersea to be evangelical about the power of animals – but when schools like Cantell cite a 40 per cent reduction in poor behaviour following Oscar’s arrival, it might be time more schools sat up and took notice. And maybe not just schools. Staff at 10 Downing Street say the arrival of Battersea’s most famous graduate, Larry the cat, has made for a friendlier office. He may not be the mouser they had hoped for, but as the press office says: “Larry brings a lot of pleasure to a lot of people.”

  • Isobel Durrant is a teacher and journalist.
 
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