The dog that taught my students to run free

11th March 2016 at 00:00
It’s not a barking idea to have a cuddly canine presence

It all started as a barely disguised ploy for personal benefit, but it has ended up being one of the best things to happen in our school, and something that has started a growing trend. In the past year we have advised seven other schools on how they, too, can do it. What am I talking about? The school dog.

Charlie Brown, a 17-week old chocolate brown miniature labradoodle (carefully chosen for his hypoallergenic, non-shedding coat, huge brown eyes and adoring personality) joined our school just over a year ago.

Over 170 applications immediately flooded in from children to become “Trained dogwalkers” – a highly sought-after opportunity to come with Charlie and me to the local park in a small group at lunchtime, walking Charlie on his harness, getting him to sit at the edge of the road, and marvelling at just how many times he has a wee over a 45-minute period.

The children clearly enjoy the interaction and the space outside, and for me it has been a chance to have a different connection with the pupils. It is an opportunity for some fresh air, and some welcome time away from the never-ending piles of paper on my desk.

Most of the pupils who applied to be dog walkers had never walked a dog or given one a treat. Many were, by their own admission, really quite nervous. By the end of 45 minutes, they have been, without exception, confident and clear about being the “Pack Leader”, and they have proudly left my office with their certificate to prove it. Charlie has comforted crying and distressed children, performed by barking at exactly the right time in the early years performance of How Much is that Doggy in the Window, visited every class for a meet-and-greet, been the chosen reward for improving attendance, and has a constant stream of staff popping by just to give him a pat and a smile.

The Dogs’ Trust was the only place that I could find that would, for the princely sum of £25, give me third-party liability insurance for Charlie for a year. What was incredible was that the Dogs’ Trust also came in and, for not one single penny, ran outstandingly good workshops with every class on how to care for and behave around dogs.

Everyone smiles when they see Charlie – his mere presence spreads joy and happiness. Children have written poems for him, given him toys and drawn and painted wonderful pictures of him. He is the greatest engagement tool for learning we have found.

My advice? Just do it. It has, without a doubt, had nothing but a positive effect on our school community – and now our community would be incomplete without our treasured and adored Mr Charlie Brown.

Sue Harte is headteacher at John Stainer Community Primary School in South-East London

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