Indie has presence. A nine stone malamute cross dog, he commands your attention as soon as he enters the room.
This gentle and affectionate giant has become a favourite with school children at Rumworth School in Bolton.
Every Monday Indie and his owner, Fran Gray, visit the school as part of their volunteering work to help improve literacy and social skills among children with learning difficulties and special needs.
Officially known as Animal Assisted Interventions (AAI), the presence of dogs in classrooms is increasingly seen as an effective way of creating positive changes in children towards learning by improving their motivation and decreasing their anxiety and stress levels.
Proponents of the scheme argue that AAI not only helps children to improve their reading and writing skills, but it also helps them to learn how to express their feelings and enter into more trusting relationships, thereby increasing children’s self-esteem and social awareness.
This has led to a huge increase in the number of dogs in schools, a trend that looks set to continue, particularly after the vice-chancellor of Buckingham University, Sir Anthony Seldon, gave his endorsement to the initiative.
Sir Anthony told an audience attending the Ultimate Wellbeing in Education Conference in March, that having a dog or another pet in the classroom was “a powerfully cost effective way of helping children feel more secure at school” and recommended that all schools should consider having one.
Yet there is growing unease among professional dog handlers and dog charities about what they see as the unstructured and unregulated way in which dogs are being introduced into schools.
In particular, they are concerned about how little attention is being paid to the welfare of the dogs, their temperamental suitability for working with children, and to the knowledge and competence of the dog handler.
A failure to take these issues into proper consideration could seriously compromise the safety of the children, leading to an increased risk of a dog biting a child.
The Dog Trust Charity even felt the need to issue its own warning in response to Sir Anthony’s remarks.
While acknowledging the potential benefits of being around dogs, a statement on the Charity’s website said: “A classroom can be a noisy and unpredictable place and could tire and stress any dog who visits.
“Having a dog in every school is not something we’d recommend, and is not likely to be in the interests of dog welfare.”
These concerns are shared strongly by Fran Gray. A former special needs teacher at Oakwood Academy, she is also an experienced dog handler, who started volunteering in schools with Indie in 2015.
Initially she did this through the charity Pets as Therapy (PAT), participating in their Read2Dogs scheme, before starting her own project with Rumworth school in January of this year.
What worries Fran above all is that with no legally binding procedures or regulations currently in place, schools are setting themselves up for failure.
SELF-ESTEEM: Fran told MM one autistic girl has learned to do tricks with Indie – a hugely positive step for the youngster
The extent of the lack of oversight is summed up by the fact that Ofsted requires no official documentation for the dog, nor does it insist on meeting the handler and checking on their qualifications.
Therefore, she is keen to promote good practice to ensure the safety of the children, as well as maximising the benefits of AAI.
DOGS WITH CHARACTER
There are a number of key considerations. The dog must have passed a temperament assessment, carried out by an independent body.
In the case of Indie, he was assessed by both PAT and a dog trainer accredited by the Kennel Club. As Fran says: “You need a dog with a balanced temperament and this is where Indie comes into his own.
“He has a playful side to him but is also able to settle straightaway. He has the ability to switch on and off, depending on circumstances.
“You want a dog that has personality, character, that will make you laugh and will be a little bit rascally and mischievous. That is important to this line of work.”
The dog should be older than 12 months, as a younger dog will still be teething and requires much more sleep, which is not possible in a working environment, making its behaviour less predictable.
At the same time, there must be an established bond and understanding between the handler and the dog. This normally means that they should have been together for at least six months
Fran stresses that “the effectiveness of an animal’s intervention comes from a knowledgeable handler” and that handlers should be able to demonstrate this as well as being able to show that they have a working knowledge of how schools are organised.
Ultimately the handler should know what the needs of the dog are and be able to read the dog for any signs of distress and tiredness and to cater for this by providing the dog with a safe space into which it can retreat at such moments.
The ability to read and understand canine body language is an essential skill, as this enables the handler to pick up on subtle signs of animal distress that may otherwise be missed.
Fran recently completed such a course, organised by the dog behaviour consultant, Dr Rise van Fleet. It has helped her to a greater understanding of Indie’s needs and helped forge a closer bond between the pair.
And, of course, the handler must show that they have complete control over the dog. A key feature of the Kennel Club’s Bark and Read programme, to which Fran is a fully signed up member, is that the owner’s relationship with the dog is routinely evaluated and tested.
Fran enrolled Indie on to an obedience course with Jo Pay at the Standish Dog Trainer, where Indie has trained at bronze level as part of the Kennel Club Good Citizen Award scheme.
It should go without saying that dog handlers working in schools need to be fully covered by a public liability insurance. Yet rather surprisingly, this is currently not a requirement.
Dog handlers need to be aware that they are not covered by their personal dog insurance or by the school’s general liability insurance when they are on school premises and this could cause them serious problems if an unfortunate incident occurs.
Fran is covered by the public liability insurance of the Canine Concern charity, to which she is affiliated and on whose behalf she carries out other school visits and assessments on new therapy dogs.
The welfare of the dog is of paramount importance. Again, Fran follows the guidelines that have been set down by the Kennel Club.
According to these, a dog should not work longer than three hours in one session and should not work more than two to three times a week with mandatory days off in between.
‘THEY CAN SEE HOW HAPPY INDIE IS’
Indie works one day a week for a total of three hours, during which he has regular breaks. For the first half hour he is on his own playing with his toys in his safe area, while Fran sets the room up.
Then he has a series of half hour slots with the children, seeing no more than a total of six.
Throughout the session he has free movement and is not on a lead. He doesn’t get stressed and everything is strictly controlled and planned. However, by the end of the session Indie is exhausted and needs a day to recover.
But perhaps the most significant ingredient for success is the meticulous planning and care, aligned to an intimate knowledge of working in schools, that Fran puts into her volunteering work.
Prior to starting at Rumworth school, Fran did a video presentation for both staff and pupils alike.
The children were then given a virtual introduction to Indie with the aid of a full-sized cardboard cut-out of him and a stuffed toy dog, before being assessed for their suitability for the intervention by Fran.
‘PERSONALITY, CHARACTER, RASCALLY AND MISCHIEVOUS’: Fran says Indie has the perfect temperament for a dog
Above all they are taught to respect Indie as a working dog and independent sentient being.
“Indie and myself, we are equals and we work together. Choice is his main objective and the children know that.
“All the children know how highly I regard Indie and they adhere to that as well. They can see how happy Indie is.”
Fran’s love for Indie and her passion for her volunteering work are self-evident. She is convinced of the benefits AAI brings children with both learning difficulties and social awareness problems. Interacting with Indie has visibly increased children’s self-confidence.
One autistic girl has learned to do tricks with Indie. To see this gentle giant of a dog sit and listen to her carefully has had a profound positive effect on her self-esteem.
“It is about children learning that they can control things in their life. They have the ability to have an impact, to be able to do things like that.”
Fran wants these benefits to reach a wider circle of children but is fearful that unless schools are obliged to adopt more stringent regulations and guidelines governing the presence and activities of dogs on school premises, then the chances of an unfortunate accident occurring will only increase.
“You have to take every precaution; with the temperament test, public liability, the risk assessment, handler assessment, all the preparation work with staff and with the kids; you definitely need basic obedience; the welfare of the dog is paramount, because otherwise it might quickly become distressed.
“If you are not following the three hours guideline, the age guidelines, the temperament guidelines, immediately the risks are higher.”
Fran does not want to put people off from volunteering with their dogs. She simply wants to raise awareness about the complexities and issues involved with AAI.
Working in AAI should be seen as a job and career, and as such needs to be taken seriously with the establishment of a governing body to set universal standards and regulations.
She passionately believes that this is the only way to ensure the successful future of all animal assisted interventions.