Paws for Thought.

There have been a number of recent headlines about dogs joining schools, colleges and universities as members of staff. Middlesex University recently appointed five ‘Canine Teaching Assistants’ equipped with staff photo identity cards, and Wallscourt Farm Academy in Somerset have a Spoodle (Spaniel/ Poodle cross) called ‘Noodle’ on the staff roster. Caterham School in Surrey has three wellbeing dogs (Cleo, Rue and Button) helping take the stress away from its GCSE students. It makes for an amusing headline and an attention-grabbing photo opportunity, but what is behind this recent introduction of ‘wellbeing’ dogs into some places of education? After all, until recently, dogs or other animals were strictly off-limits in places of education, and were more likely to be seen as a distraction.

At a recent Wellbeing Conference, Vice Chancellor of the University of Buckingham, Sir Anthony Seldon believes that every school should have a dog or other wellbeing pet to reduce classroom stress and anxiety and says it is “a powerfully cost-effective way of helping children feel more secure at schools”. He goes as far as saying “The quickest and biggest hit that we can make to improve mental health in our schools and to make them feel safe for children, is to have at least one dog in every single school in the country,”. Children can relate to animals in a way they sometimes can’t to other human beings.

So, does it work? And is their any scientific or psychological basis to all this, or is it just another fad?

Well, there is quite a bit of history when it comes to the idea of using dogs for Therapy purposes, and it is fair to say there has been some skepticism in the past. The father of Psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, used to take his dog ‘Jofi’ into sessions with his patients, because it made him feel more relaxed. But he also noticed that ‘Jofi’s’ presence helped his patients in therapy, particularly children and adolescents.

In the 1960’s, Child Psychologist Boris Levinson found that taking his dog ‘Jingles’ to therapy sessions resulted in children who were more communicative, productive and at ease in therapy. And work by Psychologist Alan Beck and Psychiatrist Aaron Katcher showed that even the presence of a friendly dog can reduce the physical symptoms of stress such as raised heart rates and irregular breathing. It’s now generally thought that the presence of a therapy dog can increase levels of the stress reducing hormone ‘Oxytocin’, whilst reducing levels of the ‘stress’ hormone ‘Cortisol’.

The view today is that therapy animals can have real measurable benefits in terms of our mental health. This is supported by evidence from the USA where use of therapy dogs and other animals has become more widespread over the last 20 years or so.

Will we be seeing more ‘Canine Teaching Assistants’ employed at our schools, colleges and universities? I wouldn’t bet against it – The Education Secretary Damian Hinds is a supporter – more schools have wellbeing dogs and he thinks these pets really can help. “First I was a bit surprised, but actually it’s a great thing….For the kids it can be really uplifting, particularly those that have different ways of expressing themselves and coming out of themselves – and the dog or the pets can really help.”