Canine and able

23rd January 2004 at 00:00
Following in the paw prints of a floppy-eared TES cover star, a whole pack of man's best friends have been revealed as invaluable helpers in the classroom. Steven Hastings finds out why so many schools are going to the dogs

A magazine cover can launch a glittering career - even when you have four legs. Step forward Henry Fanshawe Smart, the Cavalier King Charles spaniel who "works" in the behaviour unit at Dronfield school near Sheffield, and who was our cover story on November 21.

Prominence in The TES has brought untold distractions for Henry. He's since starred in the Daily Express, on the BBC national news, GMTV, Richard and Judy, Radio Five Live and Newsround - and has an appearance lined up for 2004 on Blue Peter. His story has crossed the globe, too, to the United States, Australia and even the Middle East.

"The week after the TES article was crazy," admits Wendy Brown, behaviour support manager at Dronfield, where pupils find comfort in Henry's presence and take him for regular walks. "There were film crews here all week. The poor dog was getting a bit grouchy towards the end. He just wanted to be left alone." Henry has even been granted honorary membership of the public service union Unison in recognition of his role as a classroom assistant, "though perhaps Equity would be more appropriate", jokes Ms Brown.

But despite the disruption, everyone at Dronfield says the impact of Henry's superstardom has been positive. The school plans a "wall of fame" to show off the publicity, and other schools have been on the phone and on the doorstep to get advice on having a dog of their own. As well as the obvious PR boost, Henry has also inspired some longer-term benefits. The school is piloting a confidential "ask Henry" website where pupils can email queries and dilemmas to Henry (to be answered by the school counsellor). Staff have reported a buoyant, feel-good factor.

"Having so many people show an interest in the school has been a massive boost to self-esteem," says Ms Brown. "When we got Henry we did wonder if it was a bit of a silly idea. But now we don't feel silly at all; we feel quite smart really. He's put Dronfield on the international map."

Not that Henry is the only dog with his feet under the desk. In our November 21 issue we asked readers to contact us if they also had a resident dog, and we got more than we bargained for. Like Mike Griffith's six-year-old mongrel, Megan, "the world's first and only videoconferencing dog". As part of a nationwide Department for Education and Skills project called "Videoconferencing in the Classroom", she's been seen all over the world, from New York to Johannesburg. Although Megan's first appearance on screen was accidental, she has since become the most popular part of Mr Griffith's repertoire. "The audience love it," he says. "In a recent videoconference the children had to remind me at the end that they hadn't seen Megan. They were so disappointed - I had to go and get her."

And, like Henry, Megan, based at Mr Griffith's home in north-east London, is more than just a pretty face. "She prompts conversation with reluctant children and makes for a relaxed, familiar environment," says Mr Griffith.

He resigned from his position as assistant headteacher at Arbour Vale, a special school in Slough, to work as a consultant for the ICTin the schools division of the DfES, managing the videoconferencing project. "It inspires confidence and we get a much better working relationship."

The "big teddy bear" keeshonds, or Dutch barge dogs, that belong to Sue and David Lindsay are also confidence-building specialists. Bred and trained as Crufts show dogs, they work with special needs teenagers at Eastleigh College in Hampshire, developing self-esteem and communication skills.

"These young people can be extremely wary of new experiences," explains Ms Lindsay. "But bit by bit they learn to touch the dogs and, before you know it, they're leading them through a basic agility course. It's excellent for their co-ordination and teamwork."

The Lindsays, who have been working with animals for more than 20 years, put in a lot of hard work on training and desensitising the dogs before they meet the students, but it's all worthwhile. "You get pupils volunteering for activities, which is almost unheard of," says Ms Lindsay.

"These are teenagers who tend to sit back and hide their faces. Then they see the animals respond to them, and they're first in the queue."

Simon Robinson, who teaches at a Japanese junior high school in Okinawa (and whose mum regularly sends him her copy of The TES), has noticed a similar effect with his dog, Oriko-sensei. Adopting her as a stray puppy when she met him at the school gates, Mr Robinson got his pupils to name her (her name means "good-girl teacher"). He took her regularly to school and to the crammer classes he teaches in the evenings, before finally giving her away to the family of one of his students. "We miss her. She made the classroom a less formal, more relaxed place," he explains. "And crammer lessons begin at 8pm, after a full day of school, when students are often tired. Oriko-sensei provided a welcome source of stimulation, and improved concentration."

He used Oriko-sensei in writing and role-playing exercises and to boost confidence in language speaking. "Japanese high schoolers, especially the studious type who attend evening cram schools, tend to be shy and unwilling to speak out loud. She got them to open up a little."

Children with severe emotional and behavioural problems at the Mulberry Bush school in Oxfordshire, a residential primary school, are accustomed to the calm companionship of Muskoka, a golden retriever owned by Rosie Johnston, a team leader in learning support who contacted us. When children need "time out", he provides a great excuse to go for a walk; hard work is rewarded with a "class pass" to come and stroke Muskoka, and a small group go for a longer walk each week with Bob, another teacher's Patterdale terrier. Since caring for Muskoka as a puppy, the children have weighed him, measured him and learned to describe him - even what his breath smells like.

But it's in literacy that Muskoka comes into his own. From the age of nine-and-a-half weeks, he has had "bedtime" stories read to him by children who find reading to anyone else "too threatening". Reading takes place after lunch, when he lies down on the classroom step. Having a full tummy helps to send him to sleep.

The school has an annual summer camp in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, where Muskoka sits by the fire in the evenings, drying off from the hours spent in the river chasing sticks and stones. Ms Johnston says he's a great advertisement for his breed: calm, docile and at ease with children, many of whom grow in confidence in his company.

Sarah Morgan's golden retriever, Holly, had special preparation for her job at Stoke Heath young offenders' institute in Shropshire. "She's used to all the doors banging behind her, alarm bells, officers running. It doesn't faze her," explains Ms Morgan, the deputy education manager. "And the boys are very protective. They make sure she's all right." In fact, despite some boys "openly admitting to cruelty to animals", Holly has become the most popular member of Stoke Heath's education team. She has been used to teach health care and hygiene, as inspiration for literacy, and to develop communication and team skills. And she's the object of unconditional affection. "These young men can find it difficult to show their feelings.

But then you see them lying on the ground with Holly, and all the barriers are broken down," says Ms Morgan. "We get far less bullying or niggly comments. Holly refocuses everyone's attention."

The experiment has been so successful that other prisons are interested in using dogs, and there is hope of a pilot scheme linking training for Guide Dogs for the Blind with young offenders' institutes. "We're looking at allowing young offenders in open prisons to become puppy walkers for guide dogs," says Ms Morgan. "This would give them responsibility, and be a good way for the dogs to learn their trade."

Nikki Allan-Dan, a supply teacher who is partially sighted, has had her three-year-old guide dog, Jay, working with her at St Michael's CE primary school, in the London borough of Haringey, for 18 months. As well as making a "real difference" to Nikki, Jay has been on duty in the classroom. "When Jay first came in with me, there was a lot of nervousness," says Ms Allan-Dan. "Overcoming this has been a big confidence boost."

She says Jay brings important life skills to her classes, and is disappointed when dogs are confined to special needs groups. "Lots of children have no exposure to animals, and this should be part of their education. It's beneficial for all children."

Nor is it just the children who benefit. Jay is particularly popular in the staffroom. "When someone's had a rotten time, they come and cuddle Jay and feel a bit better,"says Ms Allan-Dan. "Since she came, the atmosphere has definitely relaxed. She takes the pressure off at staff meetings with a well-timed snore."

Thanks to everyone who took the time to contact us about their four-legged classroom assistants. Sorry we couldn't include you all

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