As a teacher, researcher and self-confessed animal lover, I am not alone in my fascination for dogs. According to recent surveys (uked.chat/popdog) over a quarter of British households own a dog and we spend £449 million on treats for them every year. This is reflected across the world, there are nearly 90 million pet dogs in the USA, and a museum dedicated to dogs (museumofthedog. org), whilst in Japan there are more pet dogs than children under 12 (uked.chat/japandog).
Recently I have evaluated the impact of a reading with dogs scheme in south Wales, called ‘Burns By Your Side’ (BBYS – burnsbyyourside.org). The premise is simple; spending time with dogs should be beneficial for learners. The practicalities are more complex. Dogs and their owners are assessed for temperament and undertake an intensive training course. Upon passing, they are assigned to a school, which they visit on a weekly or fortnightly basis. During their visit they typically spend 15 minutes with individual learners who are selected for a variety of reasons – usually, they lack confidence, self-esteem or expected reading skills.
Our findings, first with what know from the evidence-base, together with summarised bullet-points of what study found can be seen below.
So, if there are benefits – why do we need to ‘paws’ for thought?
I think that having a dog in school can enrich the experiences of many learners and yet I was concerned to hear Sir Anthony Seldon and Damian Hinds recently suggesting that all schools should have one (uked.chat/ wellbeingedu). This is not a quick fix to complex mental health issues, and it is not a decision to take lightly. Interventions involving any animal must be carefully planned, monitored and regulated. We must view the dog as a sentient being, not a teaching tool or educational fad. Your own family dog may be much loved, but it doesn’t mean that they will automatically be a suitable classroom visitor. Schools are noisy, busy, unpredictable places and for some dogs this can be overwhelming.
Plan, prepare and educate
So, if you feel that a dog would be a valuable addition to your context, here are some key practical questions to ask yourself before you take on the responsibility:
• Is your context a suitable environment to bring a dog into? Are there certain classes, days or times of day where it may be difficult for a dog to settle?
• Have you researched standards of best practice in animal assisted education (uked.chat/dogstandards & uked.chat/dogcode) and can these be consistently adhered to? Are there local initiatives that can support you, or will you have to ‘go this alone’?
• How will you consult/inform parents, carers and stakeholders of your intentions? How will you deal with non-animal lovers?
• What will you do if there are children, parents or staff with allergies? Despite popular myths there is no such thing as a truly hypoallergenic dog breed, the main source of many allergies is protein in saliva, and dander (tiny flakes of skin).
• How will you meet the needs of the dog during its visit? This can be relatively straightforward to manage if your dog is a regular visitor to the school, as in the case of BBYS dogs. They only visit for an hour or so and their owner carefully monitors them throughout the visit. But if you have dreams of a permanent school dog the challenge is harder. Puppies for example, no matter how cute, need huge amounts of sleep, feed every four hours, chew and nip, and need toileting at least once an hour. This might be manageable during a one-off visit, but can you meet these needs all day, every day?
• What is your insurance/ health and safety policy? Any animal, no matter how gentle, can react instinctively in an adverse situation.
There is also the need for some carefully planned preparation with the children who need to learn how to behave around dogs, how to greet a dog safely, and how to tell if a dog is relaxed or stressed. This is often through very subtle body language such as stiffened posture, or a raised paw, and we must help children recognise when it is not appropriate to touch or approach a dog.
We must also teach them about responsible care since any animal in school must:
- be able to behave naturally eg appropriate space/ appropriate companionship,
- have a safe place to rest,
- be fed appropriately,
- not be in a situation that scares them and,
- be monitored carefully in terms of health and wellbeing.
On reflection you may feel that your context cannot provide suitable conditions for the regular presence of a dog at the present moment. Perhaps a one-off taster event could be arranges? Or you could sponsor a rescue animal or a service dog, or consider whether a toy animal can serve the similar role. Younger children in particular may benefit from reading to the classes ‘dog’ toy.
Animal assisted approaches would not work in all settings and with all learners, and require careful planning and monitoring. But in the right contexts, studies suggest that the opportunity to relax and engage with a non-judgmental furry friend can reap rewards. These include increases in confidence, social development and motivation, and of course, such approaches can enthuse adults, children and animals alike.
Dr Helen Lewis @HEL71_ is a senior lecturer in the Swansea University School of Education. She has worked as a primary school teacher, numeracy consultant, author and school inspector. Her interests lie in finding out more about the development of thinking in young children, teacher development and the use of animals in schools. In her spare time she enjoys walking own dogs, both of whom are trained as reading dogs. Crown House will publish her latest book about animalassisted education in 2020. Find out more at crownhouse.co.uk/authors/ helen-lewis