Schools'new best friend

13th February 2004 at 00:00
The TES revelations about the usefulness of dogs in the classroom have met with great media interest, which can only grow once the Department for Education and Skills grasps their true import.

My own first reaction was "Schools, have I got the dog for you!" as Treacle, panting lightly, lay across my feet in her usual attitude of generalised pleading. I tell you, this lurcher is just what any school needs. Her psychologically-soothing qualities were recognised some time ago when she was headhunted and auditioned for a role as cottage hospital visitor dog to cheer up the old and poorly. She failed only because she has a very long tail, and her wagging behaviour was thought to be a threat to drip-stands. But schools are more robust: and I tell you, anywhere from key stage 1 to A-level this dog could put in a highly productive working day.

She would begin during assembly (unless she was needed for singing) by carrying out a thorough anti-obesity programme, nosing through all the packed lunches in the cloakroom and carefully removing anything containing sugar and fat. She dislikes cottage cheese and has never been known to steal a rice cake, and fruit means nothing to her, so her lunchbox censorship would be broadly in line with government guidance.

Once in the classroom, she would happily agree to lie across the doorway to prevent pupils leaving. In geography fieldwork she would accompany students and dig invaluable holes, and provide cash-strapped biology departments with a good supply of free rabbits already partly dissected for ease of study. As for motivating pupils, she can muster an unusually moving look of doleful sadness to fill young people with remorse at not having done their homework. Conversely, she enjoys nothing more than delivering notes in her mouth, growling cheerfully as she does so: so she could be put in charge of commendations and certificates of merit. Children would be far more impressed by getting a distinction if it was brought to them by a beaming, wagging golden-haired dog than just by some knackered-looking teacher.

Since she likes everybody, and is quite dim, it would be perfectly possible to manipulate her favours and convince the children that she really likes the sensible ones best. On the other hand, the pain of failure in exams or national tests is never more effectively alleviated than by the unquestioning admiration of a dog. Underachievers and struggling non-academic pupils could be put right back on to the rails by half-an-hour's adoring gaze, accompanied by a sympathetic paw on the knee.

But we must be forward-thinking: this educational revolution could go further than even Treacle can manage. Dogs have shown far more subtle skills than hers down the centuries, from guiding the blind to organising sheep or digging up casualties. I advise the Kennel Club to start immediately on a programme of selectively breeding the perfect school dog.

All the above qualities are obvious winners, but you could add a few. For instance, a seriously plumy retriever tail could, if accompanied by a handy ramp, remove the need for anybody ever again to bother with a blackboard rubber. The art of sniffing out explosives and drugs is clearly useful in the modern inner-city school, and the detective duties of the dog could be extended to the examination room if it was trained to respond to the high inaudible sounds produced by illegal calculators and furtive texting. And never underestimate the help that a properly bred and trained eduhound could provide to the staff. Quite apart from dissuading pupils from nipping out at lunchtime, it should be easy work to train an intelligent rottweiler to shadow Office for Standards in Education inspectors from room to room, uttering occasional low, discreet but unmistakeable growls and sniffing at their clothing in a way that indicates that they know where the inspector lives. At parent-teacher evenings the dog could double the roles of bouncer and arbitrator. As for meetings with the local authority or the more tedious sessions with the governors, a labrador has limitless patience and readily agrees with everybody, and could therefore stand in for the head at many routine meetings. If tricky matters came up, it could be trained to pad out from time to time with a set of minutes in its jaws and return with the real head's comments. The trend can only grow. Eventually schools will have one dog per year group, and in the more trying areas a trained pack of bloodhounds to round up truants. And calm your fears: not one of them will ever eat anybody's homework. That would be too far-fetched for words.

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