Part of our mission at Vermilion Outreach School is to create a safe place for our students. Vermilion Outreach is an alternative school for students who have not had success in a regular program. Many of our students find it difficult to focus on their work; this may be for personal reasons or academic difficulty. As the principal and counsellor, I am constantly looking for strategies that would allow the students to overcome some of these barriers. I knew other outreach programs that had a school pet program but it was not something I thought I was ready for. That is until my own dog, Kona, needed to wait somewhere for her veterinarian appointment. With no other options available I brought her to school.
The effect on the students was immediately apparent to the staff and me. Kona, an older miniature schnauzer-poodle cross, would trot to the door and greet everyone. She would then continue to walk around the school stopping at different locations where a hand would reach down and give a scratch or a pat. Some students would try to get her to jump into their lap, although Kona was not quite ready for that. But she loved the attention. Work only stopped briefly as she walked by but often the students would continue to read or work on an assignment as they gave Kona some attention.
There have been studies on the success of animal-assisted interventions. A systemic review of animal-assisted interventions found that there are some positives for students when dogs are in classrooms. Animals appear to be buffers to psycho-social stress. Classrooms reported that there was an improvement in motivation, focus and a sense of well-being. (Brelsford, Meints, Gee, Pfeffer, 2017)
The most impactful moment for me was when Kona helped me make a connection with a student. I noticed that a relatively new student to our school left her desk and headed to one of the side rooms. I gave the student a few minutes of quiet time before I knocked on the door. The student was crying and I offered to listen. The student nodded, I sat down, but the words were not coming. I tried to be patient. We heard scratching at the door.
“Is it okay if Kona comes in?” I asked. The student nodded. Kona strode into the room and looked up at the student. Then suddenly, she jumped up into her lap.
“You don’t have to hold her if you don’t want to,” I reminded the student, both of us a bit surprised.
“It’s okay,” the student answered. She started talking while petting the dog. Somehow Kona knew she was needed. Her presence gave that student something to focus on while she told her story. That event led to many other sessions.
I encourage other programs to consider a school dog or pet and I would love to hear stories and share ideas.
Brelsford VL, Meints K, Gee NR, Pfeffer K. Animal-Assisted Interventions in the Classroom-A Systematic Review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2017;14(7):669. Published 2017 Jun 22. doi:10.3390/ijerph14070669
*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA