It’s Been A Ruff Week

This week has been Children’s Mental Health Week. We have explored a number of areas as part of this focus within our curriculum over the course of the week but one aspect of our work in school has remained throughout the week and will for many more weeks and months to come – Jess.

Jess is our school dog. When she is not undertaking duties in school she can be found curled up in her bed in my kitchen at home. She is a black Labrador, almost four years old, with an exceptionally gentle nature and a playfulness that brightens anybody’s day.

Boris Levinson, a professor of psychology, suggested back in 1972 in his book “Pets and Human Development” that animals can help address “complex stresses created in a technological society whose values and institutions are in many ways dehumanising.” Levinson introduced the idea that the presence of an animal can be a “force” for enhancing children’s social and emotional skills and their capacity to relate to others on an emotional level.

The impact that Jess has had in her three years as our school dog has been significant, particularly on the mental health of children and staff. Dogs can enhance children’s psychological development, improve social skills, and increase self-esteem. They can teach responsibility, compassion and respect for other living things. In the classroom they can be used to calm fears, relieve anxiety and teach skills.

Numerous research studies have supported the benefits dogs may have on children:

  • Physical – interaction with a furry friend reduces blood pressure, provides tactile stimulation, assists with pain management, gives motivation to move, walk and stimulates the senses;
  • Social – a visit with a dog provides a positive mutual topic for discussion, promotes greater self-esteem and well-being, and focuses interaction with others;
  • Cognitive – companionship with a dog stimulates memory, problem solving and game playing;
  • Emotional – an adorable four-legged visitor improves self-esteem, acceptance from others and lifts mood, often provoking laughter;
  • Environmental – a dog in a school decreases the feeling of a sterile environment, lifts mood and this continues after contact.

I can find no data on the number of dogs currently working in schools across the United Kingdom. Equally there appear to be no scientific conclusions on the impact of having dogs in schools. But having a school dog at Yateley Manor has had a huge impact.

Jess is very seldom relaxing in my office in school. She could be out with the children in Reception, walking around the field and chasing after a ball. She could be listening to a reader in the Learning Support Department – she has been trained to rest her head on the arm of a child who is reading. Children who find it challenging to read aloud to another person find reading to Jess far less threatening. She could also be found in the Nursery, spending time with our youngest children. Indeed only this week a child had fallen asleep in her rest time in Nursery and Jess had placed her own head on the back of the child to fall asleep too. We have also found that children who feel unable to speak directly to a member of staff about their concerns have been able to talk to Jess about what is on their mind.

Jess welcomes the staff every morning as they come in and the unbridled joy she brings on cold, wet, dark mornings is often infectious. Our days generally begin with a smile because of Jess and when days begin with a smile, they tend to be more productive.

Sir Anthony Seldon, British educator and former Headmaster of Wellington College, once said, “Children can relate to animals when they are hurt and anxious in a way that they can’t always with human beings.” We would agree wholeheartedly. The positive impact of Jess in all aspects of our school life has been dramatic and while I have no scientific evidence to support this hypothesis (other than she gets the hellos in the morning and not me!) – I could not be more certain of its truth.