Would you allow a dog to come into your school regularly? In this article, Maureen Moody explores how and why schools are increasingly welcoming dogs to help children learn.

Introduction

A decade or so ago, animals in schools would have been limited to a hamster or a gerbil in a primary class to help teach children about animals and how to care for them. Today, many schools are either happy to be visited regularly by specially trained dogs, or are proud to own a school dog of their own. So what benefits can a dog bring to school children?

A calming influence

It can be a divisive subject, but many schools and charities are finding that children with emotional and behavioural difficulties are helped enormously by relating to dogs, and that reluctant readers become much more relaxed and confident when reading to dogs.

Devon-based charity, Dogs Helping Kids (DHK), has an animal-assisted therapy team that has been taking 30 specially trained dogs to a local college to work with disaffected young people with emotional, social and behavioural issues, on a regular basis since 2005. DHK says that research studies in the USA and in Britain have concluded that having a dog in a classroom:

  • calms down pupils

  • improves academic achievement

  • motivates children who are often inattentive

  • teaches responsibility

  • encourages children to respect all life

  • helps to form bonds among classmates

  • strengthens team ethics.

These findings have been borne out by a Welsh school, where children with anger management problems, anxiety and stress are being soothed by the presence of three dogs. One child, for example, would normally take an hour to calm down, but at her first meeting with a canine visitor the teacher encouraged her to stroke the dog while she explained why she was unhappy. After just five minutes she was calm and smiling. The teacher described it as the most powerful thing she had seen in 21 years of education. Another young student in the school admits that since he has been working with the dogs, he has much better attendance and gets into trouble less. He has now decided to stay on till the sixth form, which he credits partly with the presence of the dogs.

Pupils with special educational needs

A school dog is also giving children with special educational needs a motivation to come to school in Hertfordshire. Here, if children are upset for any reason or lonely at playtime, they can visit the dog. Any child can apply to become a dog care assistant for a term, and children with special educational needs such as autism or ADHD are often invited to become assistants to care for and help train the dog. The teacher who owns the dog says that the children are all on a level pegging, and those with special educational needs often find they are more successful than other children, thus gaining a sense of responsibility and more confidence.

A good listener

Reading is a particular area of benefit. Pets As Therapy (PAT) says research shows that many children are nervous and stressed when reading aloud in a group. However, when a PAT dog enters the group the child becomes less stressed and less self-conscious, and soon looks forward to this new reading experience. Another successful programme in Bournemouth, Caring Canines, runs Be Bookwise. Here, therapy dogs go into five local schools to help children under 12 improve their literacy skills and promote confidence.

It is not just individual schools and local charities that have latched onto the school dogs trend. The Bark & Read Foundation was funded by the Kennel Club in response to the growing number of schools that recognise the benefits of reading to dogs. It works with Pets as Therapy, through their Read 2 Dogs project and READ (Reading Education Assistance Dogs), both of which operate in schools across the country.

At the Hertfordshire school, their dog is taken to the Inclusion Room by a specially trained teaching assistant, so children in years five and six can read to him. The school describes it as a nurturing experience for the child in a calm, homely and comforting environment, where the dog is totally accepting and non-judgmental. A pupil survey revealed extremely positive feedback.

At a school in Essex one child had become withdrawn and angry following major brain surgery, and was extremely reluctant to go to school. Part of her support package was to spend time reading to the school’s assistance dog. They formed a strong bond and she willingly read to him. Now she is much happier about coming to school, initiates conversations with staff and pupils, and has improved in reading confidence.

A risky side too

Clearly, however, animals in school are not a straightforward issue. Many people, especially those not used to dogs, fear that the risks may outweigh any benefit. Local authorities, governors, teachers and parents may worry about hygiene and safety issues, such as the following.

  • An excited dog may jump up and knock a child over.

  • Children already wary or frightened of dogs may not want to come into school.

  • A dog licking a child’s face or hands could pass on germs.

  • Children may be at risk of being bitten.

  • Dogs may become upset or defensive when surrounded by active, noisy children.

  • Dog faeces in the school grounds would constitute a health hazard.

Careful planning

Knee-jerk reactions are never helpful, so if the idea is suggested, all points should be fully explored and discussed. What may be right for one school may not be right for another. Ensure that a full risk assessment is carried out, and if the scheme does go ahead, ensure that any dog coming into school has been thoroughly trained and properly introduced.

DHK says their school dogs, “are highly trained dogs who are of impeccable temperament, have undergone in-depth positive reinforcement training and who then have been rigorously assessed to clarify that they are competent and safe to work in the school environment”. Schools should take time to thoroughly research any organisation offering to bring dogs into school, take up references and see the dogs in action for themselves.

Schools wanting to adopt a dog should refer to the Kennel Club’s Safe and Sound scheme, and talk to other schools with dogs. The breed is important, and a dog of docile temperament will be best. The dog will need its own care plan to ensure its wellbeing, including regular care and health checks, and a space of its own away from noise and crowds.

Practical hygiene is fairly easily to deal with. Any dog should be trained to defecate off site before and after school, and pupils and staff should wash their hands with soap and water or use a sanitiser after coming into contact with a dog.

Introducing a dog to the school environment is a crucial stage and should be planned carefully. Where a school plans to host its own dog it should be introduced into school gradually when still a puppy, meeting staff and pupils in small, quiet groups. One person should have overall responsibility for the dog and other staff interacting with it must be trained so they become familiar with the dog and are able to anticipate problems.

Last reviewed 19 March 2012