The newest member of staff at a Sheffield secondary has a permanently wet nose, gets paid in sardines and sleeps through meetings. Steven Hastings discovers how a dog called Henry is helping out in the classroom
There's a homely feel about the behaviour and learning support block at Dronfield secondary school, near Sheffield. It's in what used to be the headteacher's house, which probably helps. So do the bright colours and comfortable Ikea furniture. But mostly the relaxed domestic ambience is largely due to the presence of one Henry Fanshawe Smart.
He doesn't do much; mostly he just sprawls in front of the fireplace. Yet he is being credited with transforming pupils' attitudes, raising attendance rates and improving behaviour. Quite an achievement for a six-month-old cavalier King Charles spaniel.
So how does Henry do it? There's plenty of scientific evidence that looking after a pet can be therapeutic, and Wendy Brown, Dronfield's behaviour support manager, has much of it posted on the walls. "He's a calming influence," she explains. "Children find it easier to talk about their problems if they're stroking Henry. And if someone is worked up about something I send them out to walk the dog, and they come back a different person."
For children who have had a difficult weekend at home, it's a real tonic to be greeted on Monday morning by a four-legged friend. "Henry offers unconditional love," says Wendy. "And, sadly, some of the children don't get that from their parents." In return, the children are able to be affectionate towards the dog, without feeling self-conscious. "It's not cool to show affection to your friends," says Wendy, "but it's fine to cuddle the dog." Henry sits up and shakes his ears. "In fact, it's impossible not to."
The chance to spend time with Henry is also an incentive for the children to keep up with their studies. If they don't finish their work, they don't get to see the dog. And he's more than just a pretty face. The school has developed an alternative curriculum for some of its students, using Henry as an educational resource. A "skills for working life" qualification now includes an animal care element, and visiting speakers from the RSPCA will explain about animal needs and responsible ownership. "That's why we bought a puppy," says Wendy. "An older dog would have been less work, but we wanted it to be hard work, because we wanted the children to see what was involved." Henry, meanwhile, sprawls across his bed, unaware of the intensive training programme he's scheduled to undergo in a few weeks'
Once the decision had been made to get a dog, the big question was, what sort? "I was going to bring my own in," says Wendy. "But it's a West Highland terrier and it's just too crazy. The idea is to calm the kids down, not wind them up." The school took advice from several sources before deciding on a cavalier King Charles: not too big, not too active, even-tempered - and unbearably cute.
Henry was bought just before the summer holidays and Julie Smart, the school counsellor, who takes him home with her at evenings and weekends, house-trained him in time for the new term. In return Henry bears her name - along with a tribute to the school's founder, Henry Fanshawe. At pound;450 apiece, pedigree spaniels don't come cheap, but Henry hasn't cost the school a penny. Two local charities put up the money to buy him, and a string of sponsors have been scrambling to make him the most pampered pooch in town. He's got a year's supply of food, pound;100 of toys, free veterinary care and a luxury portable kennel. It's a dog's life, indeed.
Even his diet seems a cut above, consisting mostly of tinned sardines.
"Very healthy," says Wendy, "though if he gets scraps in his coat he can smell a bit fishy."
Wendy worried that some of her colleagues might be sceptical, so she has made a point of taking Henry along to staff meetings. He sleeps through most of them, but always wakes up when the deputy head is talking. "I don't know why, but he loves the deputy head," explains Wendy. "As soon as she starts to speak, Henry gets excited. It's very strange."
Henry also has his favourites among the children, and when 14-year-old Andrew Wainwright comes into the room the dog rolls on to his back, ready to be made a fuss of. Andrew spends a lot of time in the student support area. He has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which requires medication, and a reputation for being difficult in class. Yet he is chatty and relaxed as he tickles Henry's pink belly. He talks about how important it is to look after animals properly, and tells me the student support block also has a pet rat, which he's taken home with him for a few days.
Wendy says that if Andrew's teachers could see him at this moment they would be astounded by the transformation. But is Andrew himself aware of Henry's calming influence? "Sometimes he comes and sleeps on my knee in the classroom," he says. "Then I can't fidget or I'd wake him up, so I just have to get on with my work."
Henry clearly loves the attention, and has already featured on local radio and television. Children don't actually fight over who gets to walk him, but only because Wendy operates a strict rota system. Her most difficult task is to make sure Henry gets enough sleep, such are the demands on his time. She worries about what will happen during the holidays. Will Henry be able to adjust to life outside the limelight? Will the children be miserable without him?
When talking to the Year 11s recently about their leaving school at the end of the year, Wendy said she hoped they would come back in the future and let her know what they were up to. "Of course we'll be back," came the reply. "We'll want to see Henry."
Does your school have a dog or a cat? Let us know. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org