As a school, we have been considering introducing a St James’ Wellbeing Dog for a period of time. This decision has been made following extensive research and discussions with other schools that have a ‘School Dog’. The School’s shared their experiences about the positive impact the dog has had across their school.
The St James’ Wellbeing Dog will live with a staff member and her family, and will visit the School regularly as an introduction period for the puppy, students and staff. Once the puppy has completed all the relevant and required training and testing, he/she will be attending the School on a regular roster basis.
Given the impact therapy/wellbeing dogs can have on student wellbeing, schools and universities are increasingly adopting therapy/ wellbeing dog programs as an inexpensive way of providing social and emotional support for students.
What are therapy/ wellbeing dogs?
It’s important to note therapy/ wellbeing dogs are not service dogs. A service dog is an assistance dog that focuses on its owner to the exclusion of all else. Service dogs are trained to provide specific support for individuals with disabilities such as visual or hearing difficulties, seizure disorders, mobility challenges, and/or diabetes.
The role of a therapy/ wellbeing dog is to react and respond to people and their environment, under the guidance and direction of their owner. For example, an individual might be encouraged to gently pat or talk to a dog to teach sensitive touch and help them be calm.
Studies have shown that the presence of companion animals can improve the wellbeing of children and lower anxiety levels, simply by making the environment happier and more enjoyable. The human-animal bond can impact people and animals in positive ways. Research shows therapy dogs can reduce stress physiologically (cortisol levels) and increase attachment responses that trigger oxytocin – a hormone that increases trust in humans. Dogs also react positively to animal-assisted activities. In response to the human-animal bond, dogs produce oxytocin and decrease their cortisol levels when connecting with their owner. Often dogs feel the same when engaging in animal-assisted activities as if they were at home, depending on the environmental context.
Benefits of therapy dogs
Animal-assisted therapy can:
- Teach empathy and appropriate interpersonal skills.
- Help individuals develop social skills.
- Be soothing and the presence of animals can more quickly build rapport between the professional and client.
- Improve an individual’s skills to pick up the social cue’s imperative to human relationships. Professionals can process that information and use it to help clients see how their behaviour affects others.
A recent report highlighted children working with therapy/ wellbeing dogs experienced increased motivation for learning, resulting in improved outcomes. Therapy/ wellbeing dogs are being used to support children with social and emotional learning needs, which in turn can assist with literacy development.
Research into the effects of therapy/ wellbeing dogs in schools is showing a range of benefits including:
- Increase in school attendance.
- Gains in confidence.
- Decreases in learner anxiety behaviours resulting in improved learning outcomes, such as increases in reading and writing levels.
- Positive changes towards learning and improved motivation.
- Enhanced relationships with peers and teachers due to experiencing trust and unconditional love from a therapy dog. This, in turn, helps students learn how to express their feelings and enter into more trusting relationships.
We are very excited about this new initiative and look forward to welcoming our St James’ Wellbeing Dog in the coming months.
Mr Adrian Pree