Barker College Junior School has embarked on a new initiative in 2020: a School therapy dog. As a School, Barker College believes a therapy dog will enhance student and staff wellbeing across the College. Its first School therapy dog, Peachy, is a happy energetic Moodle (Maltese x Poodle) and has a friendly and loving temperament. She does not shed, making her hypo-allergenic. Although a puppy, she is learning what life is like within the Barker community.
Recent research has shown therapy dogs can reduce stress in physiological ways by reducing the stress chemical cortisol in the brain and triggering the release of oxytocin, which plays a positive role in social bonding (Campanini, 2019). In a study of university students, exposure to a therapy dog was found to buffer students’ stress response, providing evidence for the inclusion of therapy dogs as a stress management intervention in educational settings (Fiocco & Hunse, 2017). The presence of a therapy dog in a school setting has also been linked to improvements in school attendance, student confidence levels and increased motivation to participate in learning activities.
Peer-reviewed research has found improvement in both reading skills and attitudes to reading when students read in the presence of a therapy dog (Kirnan et al., 2016). In a US study of elementary school students, kindergarten students supported by a therapy dog achieved higher end-of-year reading scores than a control cohort, with the greatest gains observed in CALD, learning support, and reading difficulty student groups (Kirnan et al., 2016).
In one elementary school, qualitative findings of survey and interview data show that teachers felt strongly that their students benefited from interaction with a dog on campus, and strongly supported the use of therapy dogs in other schools (Wilson, 2017). In the same school teachers reported improvements in the school climate and associated academic and social benefits of the dog. Similarly, progress on students’ goals, and comments from parents, students, staff, and administrators were all favourable and showing positive outcomes (Wilson, 2017).
Therapy animals in a school setting can contribute towards the wellbeing of students and staff. They provide emotional support in a variety of environments. As a School, we felt that therapy dog intervention could be used to improve positive student outcomes and enhance student and staff well being. Peachy, under the guidance of Deputy Head of Barker’s Junior School, Miss Yvonne Howard, continues to familiarise herself in the School and demonstrate some of the skills she has been learning as part of her therapy dog training. Peachy will continue training until she is fully authorised. Peachy is already a much-loved member of the Barker School community.