Could a canine companion help your students learn?

While there are only a handful of schools in Australia currently using an educational support dog, the trend is expected to spread as word gets around about the amazing benefts dogs can provide to students. IE Journalist Sue Osborne sniffed out the details.

The charity Assistance Dogs Australia (ADA) has trained five dogs (three in NSW, one in Queensland and one in WA) to work in schools, with more about to be placed. It trains labrador and golden retriever puppies to provide practical assistance to people with physical disabilities (opening doors, picking up pens) or to act as assistance dogs that work with people with dementia, learning difficulties, autism and post traumatic stress disorder. It also provides ‘facility’ dogs, which work in hospital, hospices, aged care facilities, drug and alcohol clinics and prisons.

Puppies come from breeders and the ADA’s own breeding program. It takes two years to train a dog at a cost of $27,000. Puppies are assessed during the training process to decide if they are best suited to active highly trained work assisting a person with a physical disability, or to provide other skills in addition to companionship.

ADA Instructor Team Leader Katie Saran said any school that applied for an educational support dog would go through an assessment period.

The dog would live with a primary carer who worked at the school, and one other person at the school would be trained to take responsibility for the dog. No one else handles the dog so there is no additional workload for teachers, and more consistency for the animal.

“During the application process we would get a picture of what the day to day environment of the school would be like and what skills would be beneficial for the school,” Katie said.

The first school ever to receive an educational support dog from ADA was Lake Illawarra High School in NSW.

Support Unit Teacher Ryan Olender was volunteering as an educator for dogs being trained to become an assistance dog in hospitals and prisons. He teaches students with autism, a mild intellectual disability, or those with emotional problems who might live in a refuge, have been in juvenile justice or had other problems.

“It seemed like a natural progression to me to start bringing a dog into school,” Ryan said.

“As soon as we did it, it worked wonders.”

In conjunction the Support Unit Head Teacher Martin Moore, they applied for Benson, and he started at the school in 2012. Benson lives with Ryan and comes into school three or four days a week.

“When he’s not up for it or if I have sport I leave him at home.”

Ryan said Benson is particularly effective when working with students who have difficulties in forming relationships and communicating.

“Benson creates an environment where emotionally disturbed students who struggle with empathy and showing love can practice and develop those skills.

It’s given me more time to teach as I spend less time on classroom management. The kids focus on their work more when Benson is in the room

“It’s a lot easier for a student to give a dog a cuddle or pat and share that affection with each other.

“A lot of students don’t get a chance to do that at home. The dog gives them a sense of responsibility. They assist with his grooming or toileting and it emulates a stable home environment for them.”

Since Benson’s introduction, attendance at the school has improved. Ryan reports less ‘negative incidences’ in the classroom and a calmer atmosphere.

“Some staff thought it would be distracting having a dog in the classroom but it’s turned out to be the exact opposite.

“It’s given me more time to teach as I spend less time on classroom management. The kids focus on their work more when Benson is in the room.

“One of the best results is the kids’ improved ability to share and communicate with each other since Benson. They wouldn’t reach out to other students or help them out as much before.”

NSW ACT IEU Organiser Karen Forbes has seen positive results from the interaction of an autistic child with her dog Jess.

When she was principal of a rural Catholic primary school she lived in the convent adjacent to the school. Her golden retriever Jess would come to the fence whenever she heard the bell and get snacks from the children.

One of the school’s students, diagnosed with autism, was nonverbal and subject to occasional ‘meltdowns’.

“After a few months we realised this student was having less meltdowns when he was outside with Jess. She seemed to come up to the fence to look for him,” Karen said.

“One day I found him in my backyard sitting with her. We started taking him to see Jess whenever he was displaying challenging behaviour and he would calm down immediately.”

The student was allowed to walk Jess around the school oval, and staff noticed that he was speaking to the dog in his own language.

“His parents always believed he had the potential to learn in his own way, we were lucky to have a dog like Jess to open this up for him.”

Karen emphasises that this connection was purely spontaneous and could probably only work in a small country school.

“I would not recommend people do this, they should go through the proper process with Assistance Dogs Australia if they would like a dog.”

As educational support dogs are relatively new there is not much research on how they work. Katie has done a literature review and found a study in the Australian Occupational Therapy Journal in 2005 which reported “ individuals may experience immediate physiological consequences simply by touching an animal, particularly a dog”.

The Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy in 2014 found “incorporating a therapy dog in 14 play sessions can significantly increase speech in children aged 7-10 who have autism”.

Another study found dogs act as a transition allowing autistic children to bond with them and subsequently people and become more aware of their environment (Qualitative Health Research 2008).

If you are interested in an educational support dog for your school, the program set up requires onsite training at the Sydney national training school. Costs for travel and accommodation are not covered however the training itself is provided free. This is followed by in situ training both in the home and school environment where the dog would be.

The dog is provided free of charge however all initial costs and ongoing costs for the health of the dog are to be covered by the school/carer. This includes food, bedding, toys and veterinary health care for the life of the dog.

ADA is always looking for puppy educators too.

Contact Assistance Dogs Australia by email or phone 1800 688 364.