PAULA Graham doesn’t encourage all new staff members to nap in her office at lunchtime.
But the principal of Maitland High has made an exception for the school’s education support labradoodles Maggie, 19 weeks, and Pi, 15 weeks, who joined students at the start of term.
“It’s been a little bit magical to see it unfold in the early days,” she said.
“The puppies are so young and I’m thrilled they’re already starting to have an impact, especially considering their full efficacy won't kick in for a year. We could not have asked for a better start.
"Pi comes to assembly and sits when the children sit and stands when the children stand. They’ve been such a positive thing for our school and had such a positive effect on the attendance of some of our students. We had one boy who had not attended all of 2017 largely because of anxiety and he’s not missed a day.”
The puppies, who live mostly with Ms Graham, come to school with her at 6am four days a week. They’re not allowed to roam freely and are always tethered and supervised by one of the nine staff members who have trained as handlers.
Ms Graham said empirical evidence had shown education support dogs could enhance children’s psychological development, improve social skills and increase self-esteem, as well as teach responsibility, compassion, and respect for other living things. “There is some solid medical evidence which indicates that the tactile experience of patting a dog, especially one with a textured coat, is shown to reduce blood pressure; lower levels of stress hormones, like cortisol, and increase oxytocin, the relaxation and ‘feel good’ hormone.”
Maggie is in the Learning Centre with two learning and support teachers and a teacher’s aide. “The aim was to help re-engage children who may have been either anxious or upset or have been disruptive in class to refocus quickly,” she said.
“If someone is not able to settle in the classroom and requires a bit of time out it doesn't need to be a negative experience and them sitting on the deputy’s bench not learning. We want to help students to self regulate their emotions so they can settle and we can bring the conversation back to learning. They can pat the dog for five minutes, then with the support of a learning and support teacher continue their work with one-on-one support.”
Ms Graham said staff said working with Maggie had been “overwhelmingly positive and extremely professionally rewarding”.
“The learning and support teachers say they feel so good that these young people have been engaged the whole day, or gone to three mainstream classes,” she said. “They’re seeing students happy coming to school and their anxiety has backed right off.
“There’s a real sense of efficacy and achievement and breakthrough with some students.”
Pi works in the Wellbeing Centre, with the head teacher of wellbeing, counsellors and the student support officer. “School can be a difficult place for some people to open up,” she said. “Sometimes you need to be doing something else to be able to talk. Pi’s job is to sit there and be a calming influence and provide comfort and affection.” They each have one day off per week to visit Kaysadale Farm for recreation and training. Kaysadale owner Samantha Kay, who has placed dogs in other schools and psychologists’ offices, also provides fortnightly formal training. “We start with basic obedience training and impulse control so they can learn how to be a good companion."
Ms Graham said she’d been considering introducing dogs to the school for a few years and decided to make the move as part of the school plan for 2018-2020, which focuses on wellbeing of both staff and students.
She said one of Maitland's director of schools, Tony Gadd, had previously introduced a dog to Telarah Public and was a "strong supporter" of the idea. “Wellbeing underpins successful learning,” she said. “Successful teachers create successful students which creates a successful school.”
Ms Graham said the money for the puppies was taken out of the school’s allocation for wellbeing and are “100 per cent the school’s dogs”.
The canteen, for example, is responsible for ordering their food and filling training bags with chicken and cheese. “We hear the students say ‘These are our dogs’ and when we ask how many they have they get to include two more,” she said.
“The parents say they hear about nothing else. If the students are in out-of-home-care or in circumstances that prevent them from having a pet, they can now say they have one at school.”