Schools Helping hounds

In these uncertain times, youth mental health challenges have skyrocketed and some schools are using dogs to ease the way.

On a rough day at Carlton North Primary School, therapy dog Murphy sits patiently in the doorway of a Prep class, waiting for the maelstrom to subside. Murphy’s owner, education support officer Nicole Higgins, says it’s not unusual for tables and chairs to go flying, leading to the class needing to be evacuated.

“I will sit at a distance, patting Murphy, while looking directly at the student in a heightened state, and this is quite often enough to bring the student back down,” says Nicole. “When safe, I’ll then send Murphy into the classroom to receive love and pats, and this helps further to bring a student out of the ‘red zone’.”

Both Nicole and Murphy have been trained for exactly this situation. In 2019, Nicole completed a six-day therapy dog-handlers course called ‘Lead the Way’ with the principal’s dog, Jacob. Then, in 2020, she adopted her golden retriever, Murphy, and he too completed the course. They both received their Therapy Dog and Handlers certificates in 2021.

Nicole began her education career working with special needs students, speech therapists and physiotherapists at Yooralla disability service. This is her seventh year in a mainstream school setting.

“On any given day, her mobile – aka the ‘Murphy hotline’ – will ring with teachers asking for support with anything from reading to an anxiety attack.”

On any given day, her mobile – aka the ‘Murphy hotline’ – will ring with teachers asking for support with anything from reading to an anxiety attack. Since COVID lockdowns, many children are suffering separation anxiety, which often manifests in school-gate meltdowns. With her special dog’s help, Nicole has devised a unique way to motivate students to come to school, care of the expectation of a letter from Murphy. 

“Of course, there’s always the kid that says, ‘He can’t write!’, so I took a photo of him at my laptop. He writes things like, ‘You’re so pawsome! Thanks for being my friend!’”  

A Monash University study, published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science in 2021, found dogs in schools support students’ wellbeing, promote a sense of belonging, reduce stress and anxiety, and even facilitate learning. The study advised schools to assess their readiness for such a program by considering the responsibilities of key stakeholders and strategies for managing challenges, from legalities, allergies, hygiene, phobias, cultural differences, and animal welfare, to funding and administrative support. Critical factors include whole-school support, communication and training.

Importantly, there is a distinction between therapy dogs and wellbeing dogs. At Victoria’s Bellarine Secondary School, wellbeing dog Samson, a chocolate Labrador, has rapidly become the most popular staff member with teachers, education support staff, and students alike.

Assistant principal Sarah Foley says research into the effect of wellbeing dogs in schools reveals multiple benefits, including improved student confidence and a reduction in anxiety-related behaviours. And Samson seems to be a case in point.

“Samson helps students stay calm and positive, such as during Year 7 Immunisations,” Sarah says. “And he enjoys attending other school events, including assemblies and the school athletics carnival.”  

Unlike Murphy, Samson has not been specially trained. However, mental health practitioner Renae Schomacker – Samson’s owner and part of Bellarine SC’s wellbeing team – has completed a Dogs Connect course, along with six of her colleagues, learning how to create dog policies and understand safety requirements. 

Renae held assemblies for each year level where she discussed the benefits of having a wellbeing dog at school but also communicated comprehensive rules to the student body. One critical rule is that students need to ask permission before patting or interacting with Samson. 

Renae says Samson has become a valuable part of the wellbeing team and he misses school during term breaks. Recently, he provided welcome comfort during a grief counselling session after a Year 12 student died.

“It’s helped build relationships between students and staff,” says Renae. “Also, a young person is often more likely to work on managing their behaviour regulation for a dog than for a human.” 

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