Having a ruff time? Go and see the therapet…

10th November 2017 at 00:00
How man’s best friend has helped reluctant readers to flourish at one school

Riggs is 8 and loves to be read to in school. Nothing unusual in that – except that Riggs is an English springer spaniel.

Since the start of the school year, in what is thought to be a first in Scotland, he has been helping children at Stirling’s Bannockburn Primary to discover a love of reading.

Children come to the school’s support-for-learning base for some one-to-one time with Riggs. What follows has been known to reduce passing teachers to tears.

These are pupils who, for various underlying reasons, have struggled badly with reading in the past. Whatever is behind their troubles – it could be dyslexia, autism or difficult situations at home – they share an aversion to reading in class.

In the base, however, it is a different story.

The first pupil through the door is P7 Simone. Without any fuss, she sits down and opens a book while Riggs, knowing this drill well, lies down and snuggles into a comfy chair beside Simone.

For about 15 minutes, with no intervention from a teacher, Simone reads aloud while Riggs patiently listens, barely budging the entire time. Simone has dyslexia, but the self-consciousness that hampers her attempts to read in class melts away beside Riggs.

“Dogs like listening,” says Simone. She revels in the non-judgemental nature of her relationship with Riggs: “No one [else] is listening and no one’s watching you,” she adds.

Origin story

Riggs – who is named after the Mel Gibson character in the Lethal Weapon film series – spends all day every day in the 384-pupil school and nursery.

The origin of his role can be traced back to the 2015-16 school year, when staff heard about a charity, Canine Concern Scotland, which put specially trained dogs – or “therapets” – into care homes to raise the spirits of lonely residents and into prisons to help inmates deal with anger.

The school asked whether the charity’s dogs could also work in schools – and so began a small pilot project involving half a dozen P5s who did not enjoy reading.

The impact of this work – with Dylan, also a spaniel, and Scruffy, a cross-breed – was so successful that the project was expanded last year. The dogs’ short visits turned out to be not nearly enough to meet the school’s ambitions – which is where Riggs came in.

He belongs to Sacha Oates, the school’s principal teacher of support for learning, and she twigged early on that he might be able to do what the trained therapets did.

However, although he had an even temperament, he had to go through a year of training before the charity was happy that he could effectively live and work among hundreds of often boisterous children.

Riggs has become a well-known and much-loved figure in the school. His role quickly expanded from the timetabled reading sessions, in which he sees five to six children in a typical day. A pupil in the midst of a meltdown, for example, might prompt a teacher to pick up one of the school walkie-talkies and ask Oates if there is time for an impromptu petting session.

“When children are in crisis, Riggs can de-escalate things in a way that we can’t,” says headteacher Audrey Ross. “When they go [to see Riggs], within seconds, they have absolutely calmed down.”

Staff feared that one P5 boy with a difficult home life was bordering on clinical depression. He never smiled and always pulled up a hooded top to shut out the world. Now, says Oates, she has seen teachers in tears when they pass the base and see the same boy reading enthusiastically to Riggs, an energy that he is “carrying into the classroom”.

The sense of tranquillity imbued by Riggs – enhanced with the type of background relaxation music that you might hear in a spa – is what pupils say helps them focus. “He becomes really calm and submissive when people start reading,” says Oates.

P7 pupil Abbie, in between stroking Riggs and reading to him, says: “He’s not a human – he’s not going to tell you you made a mistake, you can just keep reading to him.”

She adds: “It makes me feel much calmer than reading in class. Sometimes in class, I make mistakes and everybody starts laughing, but when I read with Riggs, it makes me feel more safe.”

When another pupil, Rhys, comes to visit, Riggs shuffles over to rest his head on the P6 boy’s knee. Rhys gently twirls a forefinger on Riggs’ back as both become absorbed in a storybook.

“It’s better than reading to adults,” says Rhys. “Some adults say, ‘You need to do that work again,’ but Riggs just listens.”

Dog treats

Dylan and Scruffy both still visit the school one morning a week. Oates says that, between them, the three dogs might work with 25-30 children in a typical week. Demand is far outstripping supply, however, as almost every pupil in the school seems eager to spend time with Riggs. So that no one feels left out, Oates takes Riggs – who wears a bandana round his neck with the colourful school badge depicting the nearby Ochil Hills – to visit and sit in on every class now and again.

Visiting Riggs might also be a reward for a pupil’s good work and behaviour. Parents – who have been uniformly positive about Riggs’ role in school life – might ask for their child to spend time with him to overcome a fear of dogs. Some children are building a sense of responsibility by taking him on visits to a nearby home for older people. Staff, too, like to spend time with Riggs – the headteacher says that, after a particularly stressful meeting or phone call, giving him a stroke helps her reset.

Oates, meanwhile, says that – although there is little research in this area (see box, opposite) – she has gathered early evidence that Riggs’ calming influence is helping struggling readers close a gap in attainment between them and other children.

Canine Concern is now bringing its dogs to other schools, and a number of primaries and secondaries have shown an interest in doing something similar to Bannockburn Primary. Not all are lucky enough, however, to have a member of staff who can call upon a dog like Riggs.

Back at Bannockburn, staff are refining how Riggs can help children. Rather than taking pupils to see him after angry flashpoints in the playground, for example, they are trying to spot warning signs earlier and sending children to visit their canine friend before emotions spill over.

“They go back to the classroom with a different mindset,” says Oates. “It’s like a weight has been lifted from their shoulders.”



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