Introducing dogs safely into the primary school

Written by: Dr Helen Lewis & Dr Russell Grigg | Published:
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Animals have long been used in primary schools – especially dogs. Dr Helen Lewis and Dr Russell Grigg, authors of Tails from the Classroom, take a practical look at how dogs can be used in primary schools and offer six steps for their safe introduction


It is common in school foyers to see friendly staff pictures to welcome visitors, who can then put a name to a face. When we visited Deighton Primary School in South Wales it was a delight to see Peter Pudding, the school rabbit, among the staff photographs. He deserves such accolade for his calming presence, as each week children read in his company and share with him their day-to-day experiences.

Animals have long been used in primary schools. In the 1930s, for example, a few progressive headteachers set up the likes of a “young farmer’s club” in which children looked after chickens on the school grounds.

They reasoned that this enabled children to learn important social skills, such as caring for others, an understanding of nutrition, and self-reliance, most needed during the hardship of the Depression.

More recently, a growing number of headteachers are seeing the broader educational potential of animals to assist children’s all-round learning and development. Nowadays the range of animals includes mice, rats, fish, lizards, horses, parrots and even maggots. But our recent studies suggest that dogs are the most frequently used animal in primary schools and the one that has attracted most coverage among researchers.

Research has repeatedly shown that animals bring benefits to children’s all-round development. In our book Tails from the Classroom, we cite hundreds of studies which vouch for the contribution animals can make to children’s learning and wellbeing.

Those who read to animals feel relaxed and enthused, while gaining the confidence central to becoming a successful reader.

Children who read to animals know that their audience is welcoming, patient and supportive. As they interact, they speak more openly and, if the animal is brought in from outside the school, they learn to listen to the owner’s instructions because they have a clear purpose and motive.

Children, particularly those with autism, also learn valuable social skills. They recognise and respond to signs that animals are hot, thirsty, fearful or tired.

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted concerns over children’s loneliness and anxiety, to which animals can provide an important tonic. And there are benefits in terms of children developing fine and gross motor skills as they groom and feed animals.

Of course, not everyone agrees with the use of animals in school. Organisations such as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals are not generally supportive. For example, they have concerns over animals being kept in unnatural conditions, the lack of enrichment opportunities, and the potential for abuse and accidents.

Many of these concerns can be addressed through careful planning and preparation, and a commitment from all to put the welfare of animals at the centre of the intervention.

There is increasing interest in how we can recognise the voice of animals as equal participants in these interactions.

From our review of how the most successful schools implement animal-assisted interventions, we have identified six practical steps to success. We can illustrate these using dogs.



Step 1: Undertaking research

The first step is to research what is involved in bringing a dog into your setting. This means speaking with or, ideally, visiting schools with such experience and seeking advice from charities who use trained dogs (such as Pets As Therapy or Burns By Your Side). Schools may opt to have regular visits from an outside agency (see The Kennel Club’s Bark and Read Foundation) to train a staff member’s existing pet or, in some cases, to buy a dog specifically for the school.

If a dog is to be bought specifically, then there are practical questions around ownership and responsibility. For example, which staff members will take the dog home at the end of the day and during holidays, and who is responsible for things such as vaccinations; there are also financial implications.

Julie Carson, head of the Woodland Academy Trust in Bexley, set out expectations and asked for expressions of interest from staff. Julie also kept the governors fully informed, explaining in a report the anticipated benefits, costs and management of risks.


Step 2: Selecting a suitable dog

Just like us, dogs come in different shapes, sizes and personalities. And so, selecting the right one for your setting needs careful thinking. Whereas some dogs are outgoing, others are more placid. Buying a puppy with the intention of it becoming a school dog is not without risk. The breed, age, gender, owner’s experience, individual preferences and early socialisation experiences of a dog can all factor into how well they will adapt to a noisy, busy school environment. Bringing in a puppy offers the prospect of it being able to grow up familiar with the school environment, but it is essential that their formative experiences are planned and monitored carefully.

We need to recognise that some of their natural, developmental behaviours such as chewing and mouthing can be difficult to manage in a classroom setting. Puppies are babies, and just like human babies have very specific needs, such as needing up to 16 hours sleep a day, feeding every four hours, and toileting at least once an hour.


Step 3: Risk assessment

Before any animal can come into school, a detailed risk assessment must be completed – for example, whether dogs are suitable for children with allergies. There are different risks associated with volunteers who visit schools and libraries with their dogs, such as trip hazards, waste disposal and diet.

Clear rules also need to be drawn up so that everyone knows what is expected of them while interacting with dogs. Everyone needs to learn about the sophisticated ways in which dogs communicate. For instance, children should be taught – for example, by using puppets – how to recognise signs of dog stress. Some organisations such as Burns By Your Side provide insurance for all volunteers and dogs that are part of their scheme.

Schools should invest in an animal first-aid kit including items such as saline pods, dressing bandages, foil blanket, disposable gloves, tweezers and scissors.


Step 4: Informing parents

Once leaders take a decision to involve animals, staff, parents and carers should be informed. There are a number of reasons why parents may not wish their children to be involved, all of which must be respected. The emphasis should be placed on highlighting the benefits to their children and how risks are to be managed. A point of contact should be given, and on the days that the dog is present there should be clear signposting of where (s)he will be and when – so that any individuals wishing to avoid the dog can do so.


Step 5: Implementation

Schools employ animals in lots of different ways. Typically, they are assigned to work with specific groups of children such as those who need additional support in speech and language, reading, social interaction or regulating emotions.

More generally, animals can play a role in welcoming children into school and can feature as an integral part of the school’s behaviour policy. Through assemblies and modelling, clear communication on how everyone should interact with animals is the key to successful implementation.


Step 6: Evaluation

As with all interventions, leaders need to think about how to evaluate impact. This means identifying what success might look like – for example, improving students’ confidence and motivation to read – and how data might be collected to evaluate this. This could take the form of pre- and post-tests, surveys or interviews with students, dog handlers, parents and teachers.


Conclusion

By following these steps, many headteachers ensure that animals have enriched their schools. Where leaders decide, on balance, that bringing animals into school is not the right choice, then visits can be arranged to specialist centres, farms and wildlife parks, while there is also educational value in the use of animal toys and virtual pets.

Animal-assisted interventions are not a fad. They have made a positive contribution in schools and other educational organisations for many years.

  • Dr Helen Lewis is programme director for PGCE at Swansea University School of Education. Part of her role involves leading an educational anthrozoology module, and undertaking original research into the impact of animal-assisted interventions in educational settings.
  • Dr Russell Grigg has extensive experience in teacher training and has written many books and articles on the subject of primary education.


Further information & resources


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