Should schools have pets?

Three dogs in a relaxed school classroom.

How emotional support animals are helping anxious kids at school. Photo: Liz Povah.

I love them, you love them, we all love dogs. They are man’s best friend and a vital addition to many families and households. Dogs can be a calming presence in the house, and also more than just household pets. They could also support children who find the whole hustle and bustle of school life just a bit much for them. 

Dogs might improve mental health

A survey by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare was found that 314,000 children aged between 4 and 11 suffered from some sort of mental disorder (14 per cent). Boys were found to be more commonly affected than girls as 14 per cent of boys had a mental disorder as opposed to 11 per cent of girls. 

The most common disorder among children was Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, with 8.2 per cent of children diagnosed with it. Boys were diagnosed at the highest rate, at 11.2 per cent. The second most common disorder was anxiety with 6.9 per cent of children diagnosed, girls at a rate of 6.1 per cent.

Not to fear, our canine friends are here with heads just waiting to be patted. Studies have shown that dogs have learned to become aware of human behaviour and emotions. Dogs, for example, understand many of the words  we use and can interpret our tone of voice, body language, and gestures. And like any good human friend, a loyal dog will look into your eyes to gauge your emotional state and try to understand what you’re thinking and feeling. 

Research shows therapy dogs can reduce stress (cortisol levels) and increase attachment responses that trigger oxytocin – a hormone that increases trust in humans. 

A 2020 study by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute of 101 children age 7 to 12 examined the effect of the presence of a pet dog on the children’s stress levels. When compared to children alone or in the presence of a parent, the children in the presence of dogs had lower stress levels.

Getting dogs into schools

Therapy Animals Australia is using this finding in a bid to launch the P.A.W.S in schools initiative. The plan is to integrate emotional support animals into schools across Australia to help students get the emotional support they need.

Therapy dog at work in a school environment. Photo supplied by Therapy Animals Australia.

Dr Brad Rundle, the founder, director and head trainer of Therapy Animals Australia, believes that the strategic use of therapy animals in school settings can contribute to improving the overall well being of students.

He is a qualified teacher who tailors programs to match the needs of different schools. He trains therapy dogs and designs programs for their integration across a variety of settings.

Dr Rundle’s goal in establishing Therapy Animals Australia is to make this type of training and support accessible to anyone in need.

Dr Brad Rundle training a therapy dog. Photo supplied by Therapy Animals Australia.

“The P.A.W.S. in Schools Program provides a framework for schools to incorporate meaningful opportunities for social and emotional learning that are authentic and relevant for all students.

Dr Brad Rundle

He says: “We understand that many schools may be hesitant and they may see it as risky to have these dogs on the grounds. However, the dogs that we send to schools are highly trained for all situations a school may provide. Our specialised educators recognise that each school setting is different and has its own set of guiding principles, philosophies and values. P.A.W.S. in Schools specialises in tailoring programs to suit specific needs.”

Therapy Dogs Australia spends time with the inquiring schools to figure out the objectives that they want from the program and which program will best suit their school. The organisation also gives advice on how to best manage a therapy dog within a school.

“How we do it is firstly we come to the inquiring school with the dogs and we conduct some hands on sessions with the teaching staff and the students. If schools, for instance, have a dog that we haven’t trained we come to the school and help train the dog for safe use in schools. We work with teachers on how to implement teaching programs that integrate the dogs into the teaching curriculum,” Dr Rundle explains.

Therapy dogs currently in schools

Woodvale Senior High School has been leading the charge with therapy dogs in WA with the inclusion of therapy dog Boots, who after being at the school since 2016 is now going into retirement. With his own Facebook page, he’s not retiring from social media stardom though. 

Woodvale SHS teacher Liz Povah says that now they have four dogs on their roster, including Holly, a greyhound who has been with them for just over a year. Mrs Povah sees the effect that these dogs have on the students in a classroom environment. 

She says she can see the kids who are anxious in class come out of their shell when the dogs are around, as their presence has calming effect and they act as a support when things become overwhelming.

Describing the program and reactions to it she says: “We’ve had numerous inquiries from schools over the last six years. We’ve been very fortunate that the school has been very supportive and the community has been very supportive, so we have been able to instigate the program and maintain it and the benefits just speak for themselves.” 

Boots interacting with the students of Woodvale Senior High. Photo: Liz Povah.

St James Anglican school is following suit and will soon have a canine staff member. The school’s principal, Adrian Pree, is excited about the therapy dog’s arrival.

He says: “The St James’ well being dog will live with a staff member and her family, and will visit the school regularly, as an introduction period for the puppy, students and staff. Once the puppy has completed all the relevant and required training and testing, he/she will be attending the school on a regular roster basis.” 

The negatives of having dogs in schools

So it’s a simple solution for schools everywhere. Get a few dogs in the school that help kids with anxiety and you have an adorable dog walking up and down the halls for the students to pat. Win/win right? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Staff from many of the schools Ms Povah spoke to were concerned that their schools couldn’t accommodate a service dog for a multitude of reasons. 

These include that some children have dog allergies and having a dog shedding fur in the classrooms would be a health-risk. Also some students have phobias about dogs and the presence of a dog could heighten their anxiety and students who suffer from sensory overload may be fearful of the dog barking. 

Sensory overload is when one or more of the body’s senses experiences over-stimulation from the environment. It means that any sudden loud noises or jolts in activity can make those who suffer from this become panicked and agitated. Even if the dogs have been trained not to, the fear that they suddenly might bark may be too much for some students. 

There is also the issue of money. Assistance dogs are expensive, and take a lot of time to train. The average cost of training and certifying a service dog is approximately $40,000. Many schools just don’t have the money needed to get a dog. 

Elizabeth Chester from the Telethon Institute says it is not a simple matter, to just have a dog on school grounds. She speaks from her experience of having dogs in the grounds of a children’s hospital. She says that although the dogs helped the children’s emotional and physical development, the process was complicated.

“Animals need to be temperament-tested to make sure they are able to deal with children. It’s not just about putting a dog in a school, it’s also about whose going to look after that dog on school holidays, who’s going to pay for its vet bills.

Elizabeth Chester

Countering her view that dogs can be helpful, a longitudinal study by UWA researchers and the Telethon Kids Institute, published in 2021 in the Journal of Public Health found no significant evidence of a positive relationship between dog ownership and a reduction in self-reported stress or depression.

Education Department of WA spokesperson Caitlyn Watts says that while the department does not keep track of how many schools have therapy dogs, public schools can make their own decisions about therapy dogs based on the needs of their students and staff.

With research going in both directions, it’s not clear what decisions schools will make.

Categories: Education, General, Mental Health

Tagged as: