If Covid has taught us nothing but that interactions matter over materialistic things, then humanity as we know it will be better for the future. November 2020 saw the start of our second national lockdown and on a whim really, I arrived at my school one late afternoon with this little ball of puppy because I had seen he was the last of his litter, had a hernia that needed operating on, and well, I am a sucker for the broken. I hadn’t fully thought it through, that much was clear; and I hadn’t done any research into the impact of a puppy on school life, all of this was to come. So I sheepishly asked my head of school if she’d mind if the puppy came into school for a few days until I could sort out my plans, and well, that was the start of Moose the facility dog, at our alternative provision for students with social, emotional and mental health needs.
Moose not only was right away adored by staff, but the students welcomed him with open arms, literally. In fact some of which are selectively mute most days, just seemed to open up around this puppy who wanted nothing more than their love. Moose took immediately to being in a classroom, to being read stories, and to going on walks while staff talked about behaviour to students being educated off site. He quickly became part of the school with eight named staff handlers, a classroom base and students lining up to walk him at lunchtimes. This is what sparked my interest in reading up more on the impact of a school dog with students that were vulnerable.
A lot of research has been done with primary reading dogs, but less so with students at secondary schools. Moose was sometimes simply there to put a smile on a student’s face, one student described him as the ‘best thing about coming into school each day’ and my heart melted at students reading to him or writing him letters especially when they struggled to write at all. The ability of a dog to just love unconditionally makes him an asset to the school, since many of our young people have been rejected by main stream education, or let down by key people in their lives; a dog doesn’t care about anything like that, it just comes up to lick you regardless of the day you’ve had. It also instils a sense of calmness in the room, there is less shouting and aggressive behaviour if it ‘might upset the dog’ because they don’t want that, and I have found very few students who don’t like or are scared of a dog.
Moose has been one of our biggest success stories throughout Covid as our school remained open even during the school closures since we cater to the most vulnerable. Knowing he needed walking each day, brought students in regularly where previously their attendance has been an issue which supports the work of Reesa Sorin on animals increasing motivation to attend school.
Moose’s ability to be part of the school has increased well-being among staff who adore having him around, and students alike, and introducing Moose to prospective parents and students really hit home just how wonderful they think the idea is; which supports the work of Andrea Beetz from 2013 in dogs creating positive socio-emotional experiences.
This has fuelled my doctorate research to date in examining how a school dog really can facilitate increased cognition and retention at the secondary level in alternative education. A sector that has previously been ruled out of many studies due to student behaviour or deemed risk, Moose has shown that these students may actually need this type of reassurance and intervention the most. Moose is now nine months old, and the students have loved watching him grow from a 5 kg bundle of fur and cuteness, to tipping nearly 30 kg of junior dog affection. He has helped countless students calm down when they’ve been upset and unable to express this with staff, even when literally banging their head off a wall – a student can be distracted to take Moose for a walk, which then opens up conversation in a non-threatening way. I would not have believed the impact had I not witnessed it myself over the past six months. I would have said he’d be a distraction to learning instead of the opposite, getting more students into the classroom and then keeping them on task.
So should you be in the position whereby you are weighing up the impact of a facility dog or therapy dog for your school, please get in touch, I’d be happy to explain further my doctorate research and why more schools should consider the placement of a school dog. From my experience, both staff and students alike can reap the benefits and be cheered up simply with a lick, and the non-judgmental affection from a canine addition to the school environment.
Christine Dehnel is an associate assistant principal at Stephenson Academy where she teaches science and is the owner of the school dog Moose, an American bulldog addition to the school since November 2020.