'The benefits have been fantastic' - Red Oaks' pupils welcome therapy dog to class

By Claire Dukes - 2 October 2019


Red Oaks Primary School, North Swindon, have enrolled a unique new pupil: a Miniature Dachshund puppy, Dash.

Although in his early stages of training Dash is intended to become the school's new therapy dog. Red Oaks Primary used to have a therapy dog visit and after seeing the positive impact she had on the students a Year 2 teacher, Emily Stratford, decided to make a bold move and buy one of her own.

She said: "Therapy dogs are actually very far and few between because schools and residential homes have realised the benefit of them, so you can’t always get them.

"One of the problems we had was that we wanted to have one in more, but they don’t always have the time to come in because they’re all so busy and then they have to have breaks – that is, the handler and the dog.

"We used to have a therapy dog that came in to hear the children read, and she used to come in one afternoon a week. We had such a success with her and where we’re thinking a lot about mental health with our children we decided to see if we could get one that would be suitable for all children – so, that’s why we’ve gone for a very little dog.

"I always wanted a dog, but I work really long hours here. So, it was perfect that I would train him, and he would come in with me every day."

Once Dash has completed his puppy training, he will then go on to be assessed as a therapy dog. In order to pass, Dash's temperament will be assessed to demonstrate he is suitable and safe to be working alongside young children.

Miss Stratford said: "At the moment I’m trying to train him so when I open a book he’ll come and sit on my lap so that ultimately when the children are reading, he will go and sit with them.

"There’s been a lot of surveys on how children will read so differently when a dog’s present, because they feel like they’re reading to the dog – especially our younger children.

"They can feel quite intimidated sometimes when they read one-to-one with an adult, whereas when the dog’s there they’ll happily sit and read to them. It really builds up their confidence."

Red Oaks sent out a letter to notify parents and carers about the new student as they are aware some pupils, and teachers, are not all dog-lovers. The school have made it optional to interact with Dash. Miss Stratford said: "We’ve had a few children that have said they were a bit anxious, so we sent out letters to all the parents letting them know he’s going to be in school and parents have the right to say if they don’t want their children to have contact with him. But we haven’t had anyone say they don’t want their child to have contact with him.

"Some of our Year 5 and 6 children said they were a bit anxious because I think they’ve had experiences with dogs that are negative. But it’s an important development because when you go out into the community there are dogs everywhere, so it’s about teaching them how to read a dog’s body language. So, we’ve got posters that explain to them about his body language and what it means.

"They ask really good questions about him like, ‘Where’s his mum and dad?’ so we explain to the children that dogs and humans aren’t the same. They’re also asking lots of responsible questions about what he needs; what he eats and things like that.

"The benefits have already been fantastic - even though he’s not doing any of his ‘official’ work. I’m really excited to see what more he brings. We’re even looking into getting him a little coat with a Red Oaks logo. The children really feel that he’s a part of the school and that he is their dog.

"In terms of their social and emotional wellbeing, he’s already calming. It changes the dynamic of the room. We haven’t got to the stage yet where the children are having him on their laps (or anything like that) - just stroking him.

"I know a lot of schools that are looking into getting them, and I would definitely recommend it. Dash is absolutely amazing - he’s so calm and kind with them."

Although Dash's primary role will be as a therapy dog for students Miss Stratford says he's been a big hit with teachers and parents alike.

"We spoke to a few members of staff who were a bit apprehensive about it and they all said, ‘If it will benefit the children, then it’s important’. So, that’s the conclusion that we came to. All the staff are really keen to play with him and fuss him in the evenings.

"It’s also a really good conversation starter that can bond us with new parents who we don’t know that well, so it just gets them to come to the school and have a chat."

Like all students Dash will have his own timetable. His will include reading lessons, pastoral sessions and much-needed break times.

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