The best kind of wagging


19 July 2022

Education support dogs have padded up and down the hallways at Coodanup College, about 80km south of Perth, for eight years – and they have made a big difference to student wellbeing and results.

Staff at Coodanup, a Year 7-12 school in a low socioeconomic area with 855 students and 169 staff, link the dogs to improvements in school attendance, student confidence, motivation, participation and prosocial skills.

Three Labradors, Justus, Charlie and newcomer Vino, work up to four days a week with individual students or classes.

Teacher Bek Bell says: “Our school has a cohort of students who are dysregulated on a daily basis; who come from a home life of generational poverty and often just don’t want to come onto school grounds. The dogs are a tool to help encourage some of them to engage with learning.”

Justus shadows Bell in her class of Year 7 students with autism.

“Soon after Justus first came onto the scene, student attendance definitely went up in my class, but a few kids will need more than just a dog to turn up.”

Bell uses Justus to boost students’ empathy skills, too. She can quieten and calm her class “very quickly” by saying they need to be quiet, patient and kind for Justus.

“For kids that need a sensory break, he’s there for a scratch, pat, or snuggle,” she says.

Meanwhile, Charlie, who’s about to retire, has been visiting a feeder primary school to support a self-regulation program, which won him – and the school – two awards last year: an RSPCA award for outstanding service to the community through the service of an animal and a Bendigo Bank community choice award.

His handler, educational assistant Jodie Toy, had volunteered as a puppy educator for Assistance Dogs Australia (ADA) in 2013. Assigned the then-eight-week-old Charlie, she trained him for 18 months, then returned him to ADA for more training before he started work at the school.

“If I spot a student who’s starting to escalate, Charlie and I will go up to them and I’ll say, ‘Can you hold onto Charlie for a second while I do this?’, to help bring the student back to the present.”

The dogs are also part of the school’s positive behavioural support program and students are able to earn rewards to “buy time and have their photos taken with the dogs”.

Introducing education support dogs to a school needs some careful thought and planning, says Toy.

There needs to be appropriate risk assessment and risk management and
a policy specific to the dog, for example. Toy says she’s happy to share her plans with other schools.

“The whole school needs to be educated about how to act around an educational support dog (ESD) and the dog learns it’s a privilege, not a right, to interact. It could take a dog handling
team up to a year to feel their school is synched with that,” says Toy.

Breaking down barriers

Researcher Dr Christine Grové, from Monash University, says COVID-19 has increased the need for wellbeing support for students and teachers and “dogs are one part of the toolkit”.

But she notes that the use of school support dogs is a complex field of study and much of the evidence to date is qualitative.

“We can’t say definitively that ESDs are more effective to improve students’ wellbeing and social-emotional learning than traditional treatment like cognitive behavioural therapy or a school counsellor – they shouldn’t replace those,” she says.

But Grové can point to her own positive experience, training her labradoodle to work with her as a school psychologist seven years ago.

“Kids are really nervous to see school counsellors, so a dog is a helpful way for them to see us. It breaks down the barrier for high-risk students who aren’t accessing support.”

A chocolate solution

Educational support needs for the 64 students at Bullimbal School were becoming “more complex and diverse”, and the school was looking for new ways to connect them to learning, says deputy principal Emma Kirby.

The K-12 school in Tamworth, NSW with 42 staff began an extensive two-year process with not-for-profit Assistance Dogs Australia (ADA) before chocolate Labrador, Inka, arrived.

“We consulted with our school community, gained approval through our director, did extensive risk assessments, went through ADA panel and screening process, and undertook suitability interviews until we were matched,” says Kirby.

Then COVID hit.

Principal Brett Pearson says the pandemic delayed his and Kirby’s trip to Sydney for handler training, but they secured special approval a few weeks later and all the effort has paid off.

“Inka has been really effective for students who are reluctant to attend. She’ll meet them at the car or bus and walk them through the gate to help them transition to school and from class to class. It’s very difficult to be cranky at her cute brown face as she’s wagging her tail,” says Pearson.

Inka also helps build students’ external motivation to develop functional skills and compliance during occupational therapy, says Kirby.

“She has been trained to help a student follow steps to prepare carrots and zucchinis, cutting and spiralising them. The whole time the student was cooking for Inka, who quite graciously ate the product of their cooking.”

She also works with class groups, attends parent and enrolment meetings, allows students to groom her and even accompanies senior students when they access post-school programs.

Kirby says Inka has an “amazing skillset” and is regarded as a “valuable staff member who takes her job very seriously”.

Schools, too, should be serious about the job they see for their would-be ESD, says Pearson.

“If you’re really clear about it, and the school will support the staff member who’s the handler, and the dog supports student learning programs, then I’d highly recommend going down the line of ADA for an educational support dog.

“But, if you’re just after a nice, touchy-feely dog in the school for students to pat, that’s a whole different conversation.”

By Margaret Patton

This article was originally published in the Australian Educator, Winter 2022