How to handle the teacher’s pet

The use of animals in schools to reduce student stress is well known, but the sight of a pet dog in an FE setting is less common. While some may be unsure how to integrate animals into college life, Carly Page tracks down a few of those who have made it work
11th December 2020, 12:00am
How To Handle The Teacher’s Pet
Carly Page


How to handle the teacher’s pet

Maisie is having a bad day at college. The morning starts with GCSE maths, which she still can't wrap her head around, no matter how hard she tries. Then it's breaktime and she has to face the struggle of finding someone to talk to; since moving to college from secondary school, Maisie has found it hard to make friends.

But the period after break makes everything feel more positive. Maisie has a session with Daisy, one of the college's therapy dogs. No matter how hard things get, Daisy is always glad to see her and always easy to talk to.

The benefits of having animals in school settings are well documented. Dogs, in particular, have been shown to contribute positively to children's development in reading and communication. Research has also shown that interaction with animals can help younger pupils to develop empathy and confidence. For this reason, an increasing number of schools, particularly primaries, are keeping animals on site.

It's much less common to see a dog wandering around a further education college, though. Could FE be missing a trick? Is it possible that some of the benefits of animals in schools could also apply to students aged 16-19?

Studies suggest that interacting with animals could be just as advantageous to students in a college environment as it is to younger pupils. According to a 2017 research paper, animals can help college-age students to produce higher levels of oxytocin, a hormone that reduces anxiety and helps to lower stress levels and feelings of loneliness.

Similarly, a study from 2012 found that animal assistance in an educational setting can deliver myriad benefits for students of all ages, from improved behaviour and interpersonal interaction, to better mental and physical health, all of which can positively affect the "preconditions for learning" (see box, below).

Juliet Anton, an experienced counselling psychologist, has seen the same effects in her own work. She suggests that being around animals could be very beneficial to FE students. "Animals could help college students develop a better sense of self-worth and confidence," she says. "Animals are empathetic, non-judgemental and shower us with affection. Thus, the bond that college students create with an animal could help build their trust, improve their communication skills with others and stabilise their emotions."

Paws for thought

The evidence, then, is pointing towards animals being a welcome addition to any learning environment, no matter the age of the learners. But how practical is it to introduce an animal into your college? And how do you make sure that students can reap the benefits? Clearly, there is more to the process than simply adopting a dog and letting it loose in the hallways.

At Coleg y Cymoedd in South Wales, staff have already had to think about these questions. Last year, the college introduced a pet-therapy scheme to re-engage students who might otherwise be at risk of leaving education. Students take part in half-hour sessions in which they sit and relax with a Jack Russell called Dora. The college's principal, Karen Phillips, says that these sessions help learners who feel stressed or anxious.

"Our mission is to ensure that every learner has the opportunity to access the very best education to enable them to be successful and progress to university, work or an apprenticeship," she says. "The introduction of pet therapy on campus is just the latest step we are taking to support our learners to ensure they are able to succeed in accessing the education, training and employment opportunities available to them here."

Therapy dogs are also used at Chichester College. It has four that work across its campuses, which primarily provide additional support for students with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). Eileen Darby, Chichester College group director for SEND, says the college was encouraged to introduce the dogs after reading research that suggested interaction with animals could have "enormous health benefits, including helping to improve psychological wellbeing and self-esteem" - benefits that the team felt would be particularly relevant to learners with SEND.

"We are very lucky to be able to benefit from the presence of these lovely dogs and for our students to be able to share in the joy of spending time with them," says Darby. "They are excellent listeners, who never judge or talk back. They provide comfort to students when they feel anxious or upset and can help our students to develop their social skills, teaching them about respect and responsibility."

One of the dogs, Kipling, works with his owner, a member of the additional support staff. Having Kipling on the team has been "transformative", Darby says, especially during mentoring sessions with students, where his presence "provides a change of dynamic and focus which often makes students feel more comfortable".

She has also observed that being around the dogs has helped some students to re-engage with the academic environment, even where this has "previously been quite challenging" for them.

Going by Darby's experience, then, introducing a dog into college could have particular benefits for students with SEND or for those who find the academic environment more challenging.

Stroke of genius

But that doesn't change the fact that animals bring baggage - someone will need to look after each one, and the college will have to pay for their food and care.

The staff at Abingdon and Witney College in Oxfordshire know this better than most people working in the FE sector. The land-based college is home to Common Leys Farm, a working farm that rears animals of all sizes and incorporates an award-winning thoroughbred stud farm, as well as an innovative agritech and livestock tech centre.

Briefly, this farm is used for students eager to pursue a career in animal or agriculture-related industries; the majority of their time at college is spent working directly with the animals, with the theory element increasing year on year to ready them for university.

"Our focus is preparing students for careers in the animal, agriculture and equine industries so our main focus is ensuring they have the practical skills to get their dream job," says Clair Juler, curriculum manager at Abingdon and Witney College. "The courses are very practical so the majority of the term they're out working with the animals."

Although the animals are necessary for Abingdon and Witney as a teaching and learning resource, Juler has found that spending time on the farm also helps students in other ways; for instance, getting to grips with the practicalities of being responsible for taking care of animals can support students to develop a range of non-farming skills that prepare them for life beyond college, she says.

"While our students come here to do their animal-care qualifications, they are also developing as young individuals with regards to their confidence, social skills and academic skills," explains Juler. "Working with animals [involves] so many skills that they have to learn, including independence, initiative and commitment. A key thing we always make sure is that our courses do give our students adult skills, responsibility and a sense of grit."

The "baggage" that comes with looking after animals can potentially be of benefit to students, then, if colleges involve them in the animals' care. But what about if a college doesn't have easy access to the facilities or funding required to take care of an animal full-time? Suppose your college has an inner-city campus or very limited space?

The option for colleges that can't take on an animal of their own is to make contact with a local organisation that can arrange visits from therapy animals. The services of many such organisations have been limited during the coronavirus pandemic, but they could become a good option once restrictions are lifted. Colleges could then call on the support of animals when students need it the most, without having to make a permanent commitment. For example, Margit Gabriele Muller, an experienced vet and life coach, suggests that arranging a visit from a therapy dog could be especially useful for managing stress in the run-up to exams.

"Petting dogs, even for just 10 minutes, has strong immediate benefits, as it significantly reduces stress and increases happiness and energy levels," she says. "These effects do not vanish quickly and continue even after several hours."

Anton agrees with this approach, adding that another point in the academic year when these benefits would be welcome for many students is the transition to college, which can be a difficult process.

"For some individuals, going to college is a daunting experience because of the new environment, new people and new routine," she says. "As [students] are building their social network around this college experience, animals could provide them with social support that alleviates their anxiety about social rejection."

So, what might an effective intervention session with a visiting dog look like? According to Muller, just 20 minutes spent with a dog can lead to significant improvements in a student's wellbeing and mood, as well as a reduction in anxiety. Sessions do not have to be long, but allowing them to spend time alone with the animal will make the experience more worthwhile, she notes.

"Interestingly, these effects are even greater if the interaction is conducted without the dog handler being present," says Muller.

While some may consider the use of animals in colleges to be barking mad, anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that they can be just as beneficial to older students as to those in primary school. Not only can they help to relax students, improve their confidence and help them to become more motivated in the classroom, but getting involved in an animal's care can contribute to the development of those all-important life skills that colleges are so keen to foster.

Carly Page is a freelance writer

This article originally appeared in the 11 December 2020 issue

You need a Tes subscription to read this article

Subscribe now to read this article and get other subscriber-only content

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive articles and email newletters

Already registered? Log in

You need a subscription to read this article

Subscribe now to read this article and get other subscriber-only content, including:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive articles and email newsletters

Read more