Assistant Head, Charlotte Weatherley from Dorset’s Knighton House, has written an article on the benefits and sheer delight of Canine Assistants within the school setting…
It is afternoon in a classroom at Knighton House school and there is a discussion taking place about women warriors; you may not have known it, but April 2019 was Women in Translation month and according to the Reading Agency who run the prize, ‘Women in Translation Month highlights the brilliant women writers who do get translated and aims to bring them more readers and raise awareness of the translators and publishers behind them.’ “What do you think about separate prizes for women?” the girls are asking each other. “Is it necessary to separate prizes according to gender?” is someone else’s question; “What would Thomas Hardy have thought about it?” is thrown in (Year 7 are focusing on the women in his Wessex Tales this term). In amongst the buzz of dialogue there is another sound, although no-one takes any notice of it, for as much a part of our classrooms at Knighton House as ponies in the stables, is the presence of a dog in our day-to-day learning. How quaint; how cute; what an epitome of Englishness, you think; true, but our dogs are the canine personification of the school’s founding philosophies, supporting and growing the learning concepts we so value for our pupils.
Every school photo hanging on the walls at Knighton House contains a dog; in some years, several dogs and a horse, and in one memorable year, five dogs, two pygmy goats and two horses. Part of the family, our pupils expect animals to be in the photo and the animals expect to be there; no vicious inter-species looks have ever been exchanged. The therapeutic benefits of animals we all know well, and although camels, sheep and chickens are documented therapy animals, it is horses, birds, dogs, fish, cats and small furries (guinea pigs are being widely used in dementia therapy) that are used most commonly. Stroking, patting, mucking out, grooming and feeding are highly rewarding, intensely calming activities which increase self-esteem and reduce anxiety, and so invested are we in promoting positive mental health, that we are soon to become a BHS centre for the Changing Lives Through Horses programme. Even pupils who are not animal mad (they are few at Knighton House) are encouraged to be confident around them because, like being able to swim, it is a super life skill. But look very closely at the environment and it is our canine assistants who fulfil the most crucial roles at Knighton House – reassuring and encouraging learners; demonstrating how adults respond to challenge and modelling the process of finding solutions.
In the English classroom a black Working Cocker Spaniel called Tipper leans ‘companionably’ during reading time (he can never look at Belonging by Jeannie Baker too often) and he is a living example for demonstrating the rule in spelling for doubling the consonant. Next door in the Science lab his best friend Dash, the miniature smooth-haired dachshund, is a regular model for diagrams; he is measured, his features identified for variation and he is a sure-thing for lessons on evolution and adaption. He is also the coup-de-grâce in Physics when planetary scale gets thorny; imagining at least 150 million miniature Dachshunds between here and the sun and double that number to Jupiter, and distances in the solar system are secured for more complex concepts to be introduced. The kindest, most supportive lurcher lays in the SENCo’s office and the Labrador in Pre-Prep is such a part of the Year 2 furniture that cracking phonics without her would be unthinkable. Year 3 have Badger who sleeps; demonstrating that slumber is absolutely crucial for growing calmness and, until he left to start a new career, the stables had the leggiest and nicest pup ever to mooch about as you mastered the rising trot. Without our canine assistants, learning loses a valuable buffer, the one which makes risk taking and getting it wrong no big deal; and it’s a lot less fun.
With occasional holiday visits from the trio of Parsons terriers who hang out in the Music department, Pippin, Bridie, Morty, Hastings, Tinkerbelle, Pickles and (sitting in the Head’s chair), a Lucas terrier called Dexter, all demonstrate powerfully the important concept that learning is life-long. Long legs or stubby tail, working dog or couch potato (or a working couch potato), dogs demand continuing commitment, energy and problem-solving. Learning is not a linear processes, we tell our pupils; in dog training, ‘epic failure’ is a concept with which some of us are very well acquainted and we share openly our disasters and the process of how we address them; much as we want our pupils to do in the classroom. When your WCS steals the sausages from a family picnic or your postman ‘delivers’ your dog, having found him in someone else’s garden, it is grit you need and immense amounts of optimism; just as when a lesson seems in a foreign language and it doesn’t even say French on the timetable.
Sir Anthony Seldon, a man who knows about these things (introducing the so called ‘happiness’ classes at Wellington College and campaigning for a holistic, personalised approach to education) has recently said that every classroom should contain a dog or other pet; animals acting as ‘stress-busters’ he says, for our increasingly anxious children. At Knighton House we could not agree more whole-heartedly, but we also believe that the benefits to children of the presence of a dog in the classroom goes beyond simply putting them in a calm frame of mind – it lays the foundation for attitudes to learning for life.
Knighton House Schools next Open Morning is on Saturday 12th October. Please visit www.knightonhouse.co.uk for more information.