How school dogs can improve pupils’ wellbeing

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An influx of canines at one rural primary has set tails wagging, with pupils measurably happier since they became a part of their lives. But, as Henry Hepburn finds, this wasn’t a case of foisting a well-meaning wellbeing initiative on children – it was all about them taking the lead on the school’s agenda themselves

The school that's gone to the dogs

You’ve never seen a room of children be so quiet and studious,” says Islean Gibson, head at Kinloch Rannoch Primary, as she describes the extraordinary event that took place at the school.

Staff had stood back while their pupils read to two dogs. The defining moment came when one P5 boy, who has additional support needs and lacks confidence with books, read Twizzle – a German shepherd-husky cross – a pop-up version of The Wizard of Oz.

“None of us actually recognised the voice,” recalls Gibson, such was the boy’s calmness, reading speed and unexpectedly deft use of intonation. As Twizzle flopped contentedly on the floor, everyone was looking around because “there was something magical happening”.

“Patricia [Clint, a pupil-support assistant] and I were just about crying, because … it was instant: a total goosebump moment. We turned to each other and said, ‘It’s going to work – it’s absolutely going to work’.”

Gibson adds: “You could see the surprise in the children. One [a P6 who had proposed bringing in the dogs] was just smiling from ear to ear, and came up to me and said, ‘Ms Gibson, this will be good’.”

Dogs are an ever-present feature at the small Highland school and staff believe they may even be world leading in giving their canine friends such a prominent role in the classroom.

But this is a tale with unlikely origins.

What happens when you tell children they can ask for any new feature in their school that might help their emotional health and wellbeing? At Kinloch Rannoch Primary, the first thought was not of dogs, but of a chocolate fountain.

Pupils fantasised about a towering, gurgling dispenser oozing viscous sweetness. But not for very long. They made their case and were swiftly disavowed of any notion that this was the sort of addition the school required.

Staff had asked pupils to come up with an idea that would help with relationships at the school – pupils have a big say generally in what happens there. They suggested “sleep pods” for anyone who wanted a nap, as well as a swimming pool (quite ambitious in a small rural primary with only 24 learners).

Kinloch Rannoch staff always take children’s ideas seriously, however, and no matter how unusual, pupils are invited to go away to build a case for their brainwave. Sometimes the initial enthusiasm fades quickly; sometimes it is a bit longer before they realise the impracticalities. That’s what happened with their dream of a treehouse network like the one in Hook – Steven Spielberg’s take on Peter Pan – when children discovered that the labyrinthine pulley system they desired would cost tens of thousands of pounds.

Code name: ‘Biscuits’

But one idea that initially seemed fanciful did take off: the crack squad of seven dogs that, thanks to the pupils having the idea in the first place, have become an established part of school life. At least one of the dogs is in the vicinity almost all the time, and staff believe that their central role in school life has few parallels anywhere else. (Although at least one other Scottish school has made animals central to its curriculum.)

Not only that, but the dogs are to be the subject of a PhD by the headteacher, and have already contributed to the master’s research she presented recently at the Scottish Educational Research Association’s annual conference. Two of the dogs have even achieved TV fame: in a series of three films broadcast just before Christmas, BBC’s The One Show relayed the challenges of staging a nativity in a small Highland primary, where they took on starring roles (one a shepherd, the other a soldier).

The Pitlochry school is one of the most remote in mainland Scotland – certainly among those that on the map do not seem to be a million miles from the country’s biggest cities – and lies in the shadow of Schiehallion, a 1,083m Munro. The next nearest primary, Blair Atholl, is a 25-minute drive away, while the nearest secondaries – Pitlochry and Breadalbane – take 30 to 40 minutes to get to by car. And not so very far away is one of the UK’s most remote train stations, Corrour, where in the film Trainspotting, lead character Renton rails against the supposed joys of the desolate Highland landscape.

Gibson says she would never have taken the headteacher job in 2013 had she not found somewhere close by to stay; at times, “horrendous” winter weather makes the nearby roads impassable and one year the snow was as high as the dykes that snake out from the village. The biggest challenges are logistical with the broadband branded as “awful – it’s basically hamsters running around in wheels making it all work”, and a three-hour round trip required to get to a decent-sized supermarket.

There are only 600 people living in the area sprawling from Rannoch Station to Tummel Bridge, and just 200 in the village of Kinloch Rannoch. The community bond is strong – there’s a “sense of real pride”, one teacher tells me – but a small school poses particular challenges for pupils: if you fall out with your best friend, for example, there’s not much of an option to migrate to another social group or explore a far-flung part of the school.

The idea for the dogs came from three P6 pupils – Ailey, Hamish and Rachael – towards the end of the 2017-18 school year. One girl talked of how, when she was “not in a good place”, she would feel better when she arrived home and got a cuddle from her dog. So why not give every pupil that option, they reasoned.

The three pupils were told to research the idea. They came back with findings about “reading dogs” that helped children overcome hang-ups about books, but found little about schools that had broader ambitions for canine helpers. Staff recommended “backward stories” to crystallise their plans, a technique that works back from the “starry” vision of how a project might end up, helping pupils to think about more mundane, practical questions: will the dog need water or treats close by? Has it ever bitten anyone? How will we know if it’s making a difference?

Gibson says that pupils often spot small but important issues missed by staff who are “so busy thinking of risk assessments and all these high-level things”. It was pupils who decided the dogs should first come into school when no children were there so that they could sniff around and get comfortable.

The three pupils used the code name “Biscuits” when talking about the project to keep other pupils from knowing what was being planned. “We’re just coming in to talk about Biscuits,” they would tell staff with a nudge and a wink. This was crucial for a “pre-assessment” of other pupils, such as asking which subjects they were best and worst at. The theory was that if other pupils knew the dogs were coming, they might skew the data by exaggerating their current problems to overstate the dogs’ positive impact and stand a better chance of keeping them.

Finally, just before the October 2018 holidays, the school’s 19 pupils (at the time) met Twizzle – a classroom assistant’s dog that proceeded to have the immediate impact on the P5 boy described above – and Tess, a springer spaniel that has since died, but which had belonged to a young play assistant who was formerly a pupil at the school.

The dogs’ roles have been refined and expanded over time, and new members have joined their ranks.

They did not go out in the playground to begin with, since they would need somewhere to relieve themselves. Some children, however, found breaktimes hard to endure, as they did not like the lack of structure, and could become distracted and tetchy. The pupils decided to give part of their playground over to the dogs so that they could see them out of class, too.

The team of dogs now also includes Pebbles, a miniature Jack Russell that would fit in your pocket. Pebbles tends to help out with PE and enjoys chasing after children on their cross-country runs. There is also Pippa, a sprocker (a springer spaniel crossed with a cocker spaniel); Ailsa, a Romanian sheepdog puppy; Dixie, a bouncy Border terrier; and Barra, a quiet Border collie with a calming influence, who sits in during dance lessons and draws the shyer children to her.

Lastly, a red Labrador gundog, Mya, has made a “world of difference”, particularly to three children from gamekeeping and estate owners’ families, who were less comfortable with more boisterous dogs. Mya, says Gibson, is “very gentle and picks things up like they’re a present – so lightly”.

‘Parachute dogs’ won’t work

Staff see the impact of the dogs in the children’s calmness and growing confidence. But how do you quantify that in a way that would pass muster with academic researchers?

Gibson encouraged the children to look at different “self-efficacy scales” that measure young people’s belief in their own abilities to deal with various situations. The one they chose – the Bandura scale – tracked children’s views before and after the introduction of the dogs. Questions covered a wide range of issues with which children might lack confidence, including: homework, maths, reading, computers, sport, music, peer pressure, control of anger, making friends, standing up to people and getting help from parents. Almost across the board, children had a more positive view of these after the dogs were introduced.

A more traditional measure of progress also showed marked improvement, as Gibson explains: “I can tell you categorically, across the board, every child improved in maths and language last year.”

This had never happened before – usually there are ups and downs – and there were some “incredible” upward jumps this time. Pupils’ feedback showed them feeling more happy, secure and confident with the dogs around, and they attributed their academic progress to the dogs’ presence.

Staff stress that if other schools are considering a similar role for dogs, they must build on a solid base. At Kinloch Rannoch Primary, says Gibson, a “nurturing” ethos was already well established through the Solihull Approach, which places an emphasis on pupils’ emotional health and wellbeing. You can’t just parachute in some dogs and expect results, say staff. It may also take some time to work out which dogs would work best in which situations: some might not mind being crowded by excitable preschoolers, for example, while others would prefer quieter surroundings.

The dogs have helped in all sorts of ways, whether steadying the nerves of nativity cast members or calming pupils receiving injections. They have also sensed problems before teachers have picked up on them – a benefit that emerged in staff questionnaires – including nursery children quietly upset in a corner or a pupil with type 1 diabetes whose energy levels had sunk. While canine “therapets” have been used in other schools – without being as ever-present as the dogs in Kinloch Rannoch Primary – Gibson says they tend to be put on a lead, but in her school dogs roam more freely.

The impact on one boy who only arrived at the school as a P7 has been dramatic. A long-time school refuser, he wore a mask over his face, kept his hood up, refused to lift a pen and would do anything not to be at school. But when he met Tess, he was soon found happily writing down numbers with his new friend lying by his side.

“It was the most comfortable and relaxed thing that you’ve ever walked into,” says Gibson. The boy said he came into school – and even then not for the full week – only because there was a dog. But after lots of time with Tess, and as other pupils were gradually brought into his space, he started making social connections. A few months later he was in school the whole time and his coping strategy was not to push his hood up, but to stroke the dog.

Gibson declares the whole project with the dogs to be a “mammoth success”, which she says is attributable largely to having been driven by pupils.

“I think this is what genuine school improvement is: it’s not me as a headteacher going, ‘I think we need to do this’…it’s what the kids wanted to do,” she states.

Gibson has seen a “massive” impact on the pupils who came up with the idea, who are now in S1. Moving to a secondary school from a tiny primary such as Kinloch Rannoch can be daunting. But the alumni report back that the skills they gained from conceiving and seeing through the project have given them both high-level skills – writing up research reports, pulling together Excel spreadsheets – as well as the confidence to pipe up in front of peers.

Pupil voice, or student voice, has become a bit of a buzz phrase in Scottish education of late. And, while most schools would proclaim to buy into the concept, concerns have emerged that their response is often tokenistic: allowing pupils to, for example, choose the colour of their blazers or their common room is not truly empowering if they are not also trusted with bigger decisions, critics say.

So, if you claim to vaunt pupil voice and proceed to ask pupils what they would like to see happen in their school, what then is the crucial factor to make it work?

For Gibson, it is simply this: “If you ask, then you have to be prepared to do it.”

Henry Hepburn is news editor at Tes Scotland. He tweets @Henry_Hepburn

This article originally appeared in the 31 January 2020 issue under the headline “The school that’s gone to the dogs”

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