Barking up the right tree
Remember when the guinea pig was a permanent fixture in the primary classroom? We cared for it, fed it and took it home at weekends, whereupon it would tragically pass away, our parents would buy an identical one and nobody at school would be any the wiser. It taught us our first lessons in love and grief, not to mention emergency shopping.
But the live-in guinea pig is declining and the visiting dog is on the rise. Residential pets in schools are not quite extinct but they're certainly endangered. "Nature study is not as valued as it once was," says Elizabeth Ormerod, chairwoman of the Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS), a Blue Cross-affiliated charity concerned with the health benefits of animals for humans.
"Animals in the classroom raise understandable concerns about health and safety, and animal welfare. But teachers often overlook the benefits. Pets help children develop self-esteem and learn how to nurture others. They learn that sacrifice must be made to care for those more vulnerable than you."
But the RSPCA and Scottish SPCA advise against keeping animals in scho-ols unless proper provisions are made for their well-being. "What concerned us most was children taking pets home in the holidays and not taking proper care of them," says Vin Odey, head of education at the Scottish SPCA.
The Government offers no guidance about keeping pets in schools and the new Animal Welfare Act, which came into force on April 6, though placing a legal "duty of care" on pet owners, has no schools-specific content. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the animal rights pressure group, wants to ban animals being kept in the classroom, saying it doesn't teach children about their natural behaviour and environment. But the decision rests with local authorities or individual schools. Aberdeen Council, for example, banned school pets in 1997, though tropical fish were exempt. Other authorities have issued guidance, but for the most part, it's up to the headteacher.
Consequently, schools, mindful of animal welfare and human health and safety, are tending to favour the visiting pet over the residential one.
"Visiting animal schemes, run by firms that charge to take animals into schools, vary in quality," says Vin. "In some cases we feel the animals are travelling far too much and a re not getting the right care."
But it does widen the range of animals that children come into contact with in class. Dogs seem to be the favourite. "They can teach children about inter-personal relationships," says Elizabeth. "Watching dogs fighting can make children reflect on the futility of squabbling. And dogs can even be role models of a sort. They don't smoke, drink or take drugs, and they seem perfectly happy. So why can't humans?"
The Blue Cross and Pets As Therapy are animal welfare charities whose volunteers take dogs into schools. Sally Carnes, formerly a full-time teacher for 30 years, now averages two days a week supply teaching at two primary schools in Plymouth. Once every few weeks, on a day when she isn't teaching, she takes her two dogs in as a "reward" for pupils.
Today, she and her dogs, Ted, a 10-year-old border collie, and Moira, an 11-year-old black greyhound, are with Year 3 pupils at Pennycross Primary, near Plymouth town centre. They are learning what to do, and not to do, if a dog runs at you. "Fold your arms, stand still, look up," she tells the children. "Don't run away, that's the worst thing to do. And don't touch the dog." And if approached by a friendlier one? "If you want to pat a dog, ask the owner first."
The visiting dog has to be, as Sally puts it, "bomb proof" and Blue Cross testing is rigorous. Also they must have imposed down-time in the classroom, because, unlike cats, who will rest whenever they see fit, dogs are workaholics.
Some children who have difficulties communicating with peers or teachers find it easier to talk to animals. This is the thinking behind Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ), an American programme in which reception-age children read to dogs instead of teachers. There are 1,300 such dogs in the US, but Tony Nevett, a Blue Cross educational speaker, is Britain's first practitioner. He has been taking Scotts Kelly, his therapy dog, into infants' schools and nurseries around his native Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, since the start of this year.
"Dogs can be great listeners and have a calming effect," says Tony.
"They're not judgmental and don't answer back. For children not yet comfortable with reading aloud or speaking to others, it's good practice."
Scotts is an ex-champion greyhound, who won the Arc at Walthamstow race track in 2001, but is settling nicely into his second career.
Pupils at Hardwick Infants' School, some of whom are autistic, take turns to cuddle up to him and read from Jolly Phonics flashcards. "If he falls asleep, I tell the child he is really interested, he's just concentrating,"
Sharon Geater, the school's head, says: "Some children take to the dog like a friend they can confide in. We're thinking now of extending this to other year groups."
But some lament the passing of the live-in school pet. "Visiting animals are better than nothing, but residential pets are better, provided they are properly looked after," says Dr June McNicholas, a health psychologist who is leading Blue Cross research into what children learn from having animals in the classroom.
For an ideal classroom pet, she nominates the rat. "Hamsters are cute but nocturnal, and they bite more than other small animals. Rats have the characteristics of small cats or dogs: they are affectionate, intelligent and interactive. They can problem-solve in a maze or an obstacle course and they respond to their names. They rarely bite - only if they are frightened or hurt. Guinea pigs and rabbits are fun but less practical. Rabbits can get quite big."
But few schools, if any, keep rats in the classroom. "Schools don't give much thought to what pet would suit the children's needs," she says. "They only think of how much space we have."
And other options? "For angry children, fish can be very calming," says Elizabeth. "They're also good for children who don't like to make eye contact. Try tropical fish instead of goldfish - they are easier to look after. I would advise against wild animals in captivity, like lizards, toads or frogs. Children need to learn respect for other species, and their rightful habitat."
National Pet Month runs until May 7, with a special Wet Nose Day on April 24 to celebrate pet ownership. The Teacher's Pet page features ideas and worksheets. Visit www.nationalpetmonth.org.ukschools.
The Society for Companion Animal Studies guidebook Children and Pets: a guide for parents, teachers and therapists (pound;5.99 plus PP) includes a chapter on Pets in Schools, while their Animals in Schools pamphlet (pound;2.50) advises on different ways of incorporating animals into lessons. Both available from the SCAS website www.scas.org.uk.
Useful advice is available from the Blue Cross (www.bluecross.org.uk; click on Education for teachers' resources pages) and Pets As Therapy (www.petsastherapy.org).
The RSPCA education website(www.rspca-education.org.uk) has interactive resources and the Scottish SPCA's schools website (www.sspcaeducation.org) has guidance on the suitability of different animals in the classroom.
PDSA, the veterinary charity, has launched a website for schools with primary and secondary lesson plans on the subject of pet care. Visit www.schoolspdsa.org.uk.