"A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than you love yourself." – Josh Billings
With Sir Antony Seldon (Vice Chancellor of Buckingham University, educationalist and political author referencing the benefits of school dogs and Damian Hinds recognising their role in helping children’s mental health and wellbeing we thought we’d bring you our blog.
In recent years it has become increasingly common for schools to have a school dog, but ‘Why?’ I hear you ask!
There are a lot of articles about the benefits of having a dog in school, from increasing children’s understanding of responsibility to supporting children with managing their feelings and behaviour. Alongside the impact of a school dog on pupils, research also suggests that interactions with a dog can have benefits for staff too. Research shows that interacting with a dog can moderate stress by reducing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and other observable supportive signs of anxiety (Katcher, Friedmann, Beck, & Lynch, 1983). However, as the Dog Trust saying goes, “A dog is for life not just for Christmas”.
So, before you open your school gates (and your hearts) to a school dog there are many considerations to be made:
- The breed: It is important to consider the breed of dog most suitable to your school to ensure that they are a good fit with your school and that you can accommodate all of it’s needs. Temperament and exercise requirements are a big factor here. Cockapoo’s and Golden Retriever’s seem to be the favoured breeds for a school dog as these dogs are reportedly friendly, gentle, love of children, and are responsive to emotional states. Greyhounds are also quickly becoming a popular breed because although tall in size, they are very calm and laid back.
- Cost: Dogs aren’t cheap – there are vet bills (especially if you get a puppy with all the training and inoculations required). The regular costs of medication such as, flea treatment, health checks, insurance, food, training and grooming need to be considered to name a few. With school budget’s decreasing, you will need to carefully consider whether a school dog is a good investment and a priority for your school in terms of their potential impact.
- Contingency plans: Investing in a dog requires planning regarding ownership. What happens if the Headteacher goes on long term sick or maternity leave – how will the dog get to school every day? What if the Headteacher leaves? Does the dog go too? If so, how does this effect the finances that have already been invested in the dog – does the Head have to pay these back? These are factors that should be well thought out and planned for to avoid disappointment and budget management.
- Allergies: Children and adults have a range of allergies. It will be important to be aware of children with allergies to pet hair. Consider how you are going to support and manage these situations as they occur?
- Holidays: When the holidays roll round where will the dog be taking theirs? Will it be joining the Headteacher? But, what if the head teacher goes on holiday? Where does the dog go then? A boarding kennel? There will be more costs to consider here.
- Death: Death is inevitable. However, it is far better to be prepared for this eventuality than have to make decisions when both children, and staff, might be upset. Acknowledging the end of a pet’s life can provide a gentle introduction to loss. Always inform parents immediately of the event and outline what will be happening in your school or setting to support children through this potentially upsetting time
For a dog to be a success in your school you will need to involve all stakeholders; governors, staff, parents and students in the decision making process, including: how is the dog going to be funded from the start and how its upkeep will be paid for? How does it slot into school life? For example, one school hosted a ‘Woof-a-rendum’ in voting for the school dog which, supported British Values teaching by developing the children's understanding of democracy.
Knowing your wider school community
It is important to know your wider school community and have an awareness of cultural and faith considerations around the keeping of any pets, but especially dogs. If there is some resistance within your school community, these will need to be taken into consideration when deciding whether a school dog is right for your school.
Dogs have feelings too!
Just like children, dogs need a timetable that is a mixture of structure and unstructured time. Schools need to consider the dog’s needs throughout the time it is in school, for example, where will it have its quiet time? Where will it go to the toilet?
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks
Just as we value the transition process for our children, this should also be applied to the introduction of a school dog. Don't expect your dog to ‘get’ school life straight way, you will need to prepare him/her for the hustle and bustle of a school day. Before becoming part of school life it is highly recommended the dog takes part in a good quality training course. Gradually, over time, the dog will need to be involved in a socialisation process within the school that will help him/her to feel comfortable around children and in the school environment, and vice versa.
We’ve got our dog, now what do we do with it?
Once your dog is trained and familiar with school life there are a wealth of activities it can do. Such as…
- run the ‘daily mile’
- join in at break times
- listen to readers - this practice originated in the US in 1999 with the Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ) scheme and initiatives of this type now extend to a number of countries, including the UK, for example, the Bark and Read scheme supported by the Kennel Club schemes like this support the thinking that dogs are non-judgemental, and that children are less stressed, less self-conscious and more confident reading to dogs
- Support vulnerable families. One school reported that their school dog had improved a family’s attendance at school “because they are going to be greeted by a furry friend every day who is always pleased to see them”.
The effect dogs have on children’s behaviour is also evident, there is much research to point towards dogs, lowering stress levels and supporting non-verbal children in making and developing relationships. If you would like to read more about the research into dogs and wellbeing please see:
Every dog has her/his day
Whilst the debates around school dogs continue it is important to always consider the impact. The impact of school dogs can be great and far reaching in your school community. Interestingly, the Department for Education has no idea how many dogs are currently working in classrooms and does not require schools to register or train their animals. However, whatever decision you choose about a school dog, remember it is one not to be taken lightly and it is a long term commitment for all parties involved.
For further information on dogs as pets and school dogs please see:
Thank you to Damien Johnston, Margaret Wix School and Sarah Joyce, London Colney Primary School for sharing their experiences of dogs in schools that have contributed to this blog.