Jill Craven sees Mutley the dog make new friends in south London. Georgina thinks he might be black; Aidan and Jo go for white; and Lia opts for red. But they all agree he'd be magic if he were red. Mutley, it turns out, is grey(ish) and white(ish).
The seven-year-old bearded collie belongs to the National Canine Defence League's education officer, Jenny Smith, and is in south London for an hour's session with Downderry primary school's nursery class. Elegant of stature and languid of nature, Mutley is here to help the 50 three and four-years-olds get to grips with being safe around dogs and with responsible canine ownership.
"Children must know how to behave properly," says Jenny. "We don't want them hurt, and we don't want dogs to get a bad name." There's also a hint of the Jesuit dictum: get them young and they're yours for life. Or, in the society's words: the dog owners of the future will be knowledgeable and responsible.
Safety is one of the main concerns. "Children have to learn that dogs are not small human beings," says Jenny. "They don't think like us and they don't communicate like us. We can easily misinterpret what they're telling us. " This is where Mutley comes in. He's an adept demonstrator of happy, excited, bored; angry he finds a bit more difficult.
Jenny, a former primary teacher, begins with one of the league's main messages: "Toys Aren't Us - a dog is for life not just for Christmas". Try explaining that to a nursery class. But they take the basics in, with the help of their constantly reapplied thinking caps.
"What do you do with your toys when you're bored with them, when you no longer want to play with them?" she asks. "Put them away", "put them back", come the answers. "When Mutley and I finish playing a game, can I put him back?" "Noooo." They're learning.
Jenny explains that puppies grow into dogs which demand daily care, regardless of how you're feeling. "Imagine it's cold, you've got a cold, and it's dark. Do you still have to take your dog for a walk?" The children think you might skip it that day. Wrong.
She moves on to how dogs talk. What? Well, if you're going to be safe, you need to know what dogs are thinking; to learn the difference, for instance, between excitement and aggression. Mutley obligingly wags his tail; he's happy, but a slowly wagging tail can mean danger. On cue, Mutley jumps up, grizzling softly. But he's excited, not angry. If he were cross, he'd move slowly and stiffly.
"What do you do if a dog runs towards you?" asks Jenny. "Don't run, stand still and don't stare," comes back a falteringly remembered mantra. "And, whenever you see a dog, never say hello unless he's with his owner. Then you have to ask, 'Can I stroke him, and is he safe?'" For older classes, she will often show a picture of a dog in a rescue centre, which leads on to discussions about why such places exist, impulse-buying, and puppy farming. She's even been known to pick dog hairs off her jumper. This is the stuff of dog ownership.
Jenny is the league's first, and at present only, education officer but is backed up by seven external relations officers and volunteers from centres as far apart as Darlington and Shoreham, near Brighton.
As we leave Downderry to give Mutley a rest before the afternoon's session, an older pupil flattens himself against the corridor wall as we pass. "Does he bite?" More work for Jenny.
TEACHING WITH PETS
* The National Canine Defence League offers talks in schools (with teacher and pupil-friendly dog), teacher's project packs for key stages 1 and 2 and school visits to any of its 15 rescue centres. The National Canine Defence League, 17 Wakley Street, London EC1V 7LT. Tel: 0171 837 0006 * Members of PAT (Pets as Therapy) Dogs take their pets into hospices, hospitals, homes for the elderly and prisons - anywhere they believe someone will benefit from a visit. The charity, set up in 1983, has no formal school-visiting scheme, but is happy to arrange them. It is a sister charity of Pro Dogs, which was set up to improve public awareness of dogs and their abilities. PAT Dogs, 4-6 New Road, Ditton, Kent ME20 6AD. Tel: 01732 848499 * Talking About Animals takes live animals into classrooms. Former primary teacher Gwendy Watson links her talks to the national curriculum - for example, "From a sheep to a ball of wool" (science key stages 1 and 2; materials and their properties). Gwendy Watson, 2 Archenfield Cottages, Archenfield Road, Ross-on-Wye HR9 5AZ. Tel: 01989 566691 * The Cats Protection League produces a teaching pack for children aged five to eleven which is supplemented by a termly newsletter, Junior News. Free to primary schools. 17 Kings Road, Horsham, West Sussex RH13 5PN. Tel: 01403 221900
The National Canine Defence League's Canine Code
* Treat all dogs with care, caution and respect * Always ask the owner before you pat their dog * Hold out your hand and let the dog come to you * Speak softly to the dog and try not to look straight into its eyes * If you take a dog out for a walk, go with an adult * Always remain calm and quiet around dogs * Do not go near a dog when it is tied up, eating or sleeping