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Pawsitive Education: How wellbeing dogs are transforming the school day

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Left to right: Eleanor 👩, Maple 🐶 and Naomi 👩 from Westbourne Grammar School

Concerns over student wellbeing are being raised around the country, particularly since the return to classroom learning after COVID-19 lockdowns. Attendance numbers have been on a downward trend, with data released earlier this year showing in 2022 national primary school attendance dropped 4.5% from 2021 to 87.8% while high school attendance dropped 4.1% to 84.7% for the same period.

Anxiety, depression and other mental health issues are being cited as one of the main drivers for this with 20% of students identifying as having low levels of mental wellbeing. Lead Nurse Eleanor Caldwell from Westbourne Grammar School in Melbourne says the issue is widespread, with more students receiving support for anxiety and stress than ever before. “Students feel they need to show enthusiasm when they really feel less keen inside. Some were flourishing online and found the return to school overstimulating, at times feeling exposed when the pandemic was still far from over”.

Dogs making a difference in schools

To address these issues, some schools are thinking of new ways to widen the scope of wellbeing initiatives they offer. One method that’s becoming increasingly popular is the use of therapy and wellbeing dogs.

Both therapy and wellbeing dogs are furry friends trained to provide comfort, companionship, and emotional support. Sometimes the terms are used interchangeably but they have distinct roles, and at times can be found in different places. Therapy dogs work alongside therapists in facilities like schools and hospitals where they sit in on and increase the effectiveness of sessions by helping patients relax and open up. Wellbeing dogs promote overall mental health and can be found in similar settings as well as universities, workplaces and community centres, where they help create a calming environment and reduce stress. Both types of dogs are playing an increasingly important role in schools to support students' well-being and learning, reduce stress and anxiety, and promote attendance.

How dogs are lifting student wellbeing

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Left to right: Jess 👩, Rooey 🐶, Coco 🐶 and Gemma 👩 from Siena College

Maple is a young Groodle (Golden Retriever and Poodle hybrid) who started as a wellbeing dog at Westbourne Grammar School in Melbourne earlier this year. Since she started, the school has noticed a positive effect on student and staff emotional health and increased attendance with visits from Maple as something to look forward to.

When kids are running late to class due to anxiety, Maple is often there to greet them, say hello and take them to class. When she accompanies a student to class it takes the attention away from them entering the room as everyone turns their attention to Maple and greets her as she enters.

St Paul's Grammar School in NSW takes a similar approach with their therapy dog Macy, who forms the ‘wet-nosed welcoming committee’, where she greets new Kindergarten students as they arrive on their first day. Inside the classroom, Macy helps calm the atmosphere, proactively creating a more comfortable environment for learning. Pre-Kindergarten students sometimes sing her lullabies while she falls asleep, completely changing the atmosphere of the class. Even when she’s not present, staff have found ways to leverage her skills and improve the school mood. When talking to students, they use statements like ‘Macy thinks that’s a great idea’ or ‘Macy says good job!’ as well as handing out ‘You're pawsome’ stickers featuring her picture as a treat or reward.

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Macy and fans at St Paul’s Grammar School

During sessions with the school psychologist at Westbourne Grammar School, Maple’s calming presence helps students open up and express what’s on their mind. Sometimes during the sessions they partake in ‘walking therapy’, where the psychologist takes Maple for a walk around school grounds. When a student is having a challenging day going for a walk with Maple can completely lift their mood. Among her many success stories in her short time at the school, Maple has had such a positive impact on one student they set a photo of her as the screensaver on their phone.

Siena College recently invested in the services of two therapy dogs, Coco and Rooey. After noticing an increase in student stress levels and a dropoff in attendance the school decided to think outside the box for solutions. Coco’s owner and college counsellor Gemma Morley had read about the benefits of wellbeing dogs over lockdown, and after seeing the way she interacted with her own young children, thought it could be a good fit. She discussed the idea with Siena principal Elizabeth Henney who was already aware of the benefits of wellbeing dogs, and they agreed it was a great idea and got the program underway in March this year.

Since starting, Coco has helped some of the students who have a hard time opening up and talking about their feelings. “Sometimes she jumps up on the couch or on their lap and it’s hard not to smile or talk when you’ve got this big beautiful dog trying to give you a cuddle,” says Morley. It’s not only the students who benefit from Coco and Rooey being around, with staff member’s faces lighting up whenever they see the dogs around the school.

Getting therapy and wellbeing dogs at your school

Therapy and wellbeing dogs go through different training processes, but both are put through a program and tested to ensure that they are safe and suitable for their role. Siena College put Coco and Rooey through a training program at Secret Dogs Business designed to prepare dogs for therapy dog accreditation. Once they completed the training, they had a final test and accreditation from The Australian Association of Professional Dog Trainers who gave them a certificate and therapy dog jacket to wear upon graduation.

Partnering with Dogs Connect for training and guidance through the process, Westbourne Grammar School made a conscious decision not to rush anything when introducing Maple into the school community. Several months before her arrival at the school, guidelines were sent to staff, students and families with best practices for interacting with her including how she needs to feel safe and relaxed to do her best work. Consistent behaviour, knowledge and routines from the entire school community help to make the program effective and sustainable. Maple even has her own email address and calendar set up to ensure she gets enough exercise and rest, and that she doesn’t get double booked. Westbourne Grammar continues to partner with Dogs Connect, and are currently working towards becoming an accredited school with them.

Advice for other schools

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Rooey and Coco at Siena College

Westbourne Grammar School says be prepared and don’t rush the process. Get a core group of staff involved, and involve students in the process too - the more engagement the better. Staff go through extensive training to become dog handlers, and are taught how to ensure safety and enjoyment for the dogs, students and community.

One thing Jacqueline Tuting, P-12 Wellbeing Coordinator at St Pauls Grammar recommends is integrating your dog into the school as much as possible. Macy frequently attends school events, normalising her presence in the community. She recently starred as Sandy in the school's rendition of Annie the musical and ran the 5 km cross country with the school chaplain. Increasing visibility normalises her presence in the school and lets everyone see the benefits she can bring.

The Siena College counselling team’s advice: “Just do it! It has been wonderful for everyone involved and we see more and more benefits every single day.”

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