A friendly wagging tail frequently greets children who attend the Boathouse, a resource base for children with autistic spectrum conditions. Luna the therapy dog is a reassuring and calming presence and is so integral to practice that she is listed as one of the team at Redriff Primary School in Rotherhithe, London.
Jack Gibbs, assistant head teacher for special educational needs and SENCO, suggested that the school should invest in a therapy dog after reading research highlighting that children with autism can benefit from their presence. These benefits include:
- promoting positive changes in behaviour
- providing comfort when children are upset
- reducing behavioural outbursts
- alleviating stress
- reducing sensory issues
- increasing independence and confidence.
A study conducted by the Journal of Pediatric Nursing that surveyed the families of children who have autism found that 94 per cent of those with a pet dog bonded strongly with it. It is thought that, even for autistic children without a dog at home, interacting with a dog can benefit their social behaviour.
Mr Gibbs believes that children with autism respond well to Luna because she is non-judgmental and provides attention and companionship – nothing beats the enthusiastic wag of a tail.
Children attending the Boathouse, which is accredited by the National Autistic Society and is a Centre of Excellence for autism practice, receive personalised support that enables them to learn and develop to the best of their ability. Along with specialist input they also have a place in the mainstream classes alongside peers in their year group.
This enables them to engage in social learning, make friends and be a part of the school community. Likewise, Luna, so named because she was born in the Chinese year of the dog, has also been embraced by the whole school.
‘Along with the evidence that dogs may help children with autism, we thought that having a dog would also be fun,’ says Mr Gibbs, who also cares for Luna. ‘We like the school to feel comfortable and like a second home for children, and the head teacher liked the idea of extending this by having a school pet. Many children in the area live in small homes and do not have the opportunity to have their own dog. Now they can help to look after Luna.’
THERAPEUTIC FOR STAFF
Luna, a golden retriever poodle cross, otherwise known as a Goldendoodle, was carefully chosen from a reputable breeder to ensure that she would be socialised properly. The medium-sized breed is known for its friendly, intelligent, sociable and affectionate temperament. They also have a reputation for being hypoallergenic, all important when mixing with a wide range of children.
She started to attend Redriff with Mr Gibbs when she was nine weeks old for short periods of time and now goes for three or four days a week. ‘Luna’s tail begins to wag as soon as she enters the school grounds,’ he says. ‘I will often take her into the playground at playtime and the children will come up to her and enjoy playing and interacting with her.’
All the children have been taught to always ask before they stroke Luna, to approach her cautiously and to act calmly around her. ‘Some children are initially wary of Luna but we encourage them to throw her a treat and gradually they become more confident to touch and stroke her,’ he adds.
Luna has a dog bed under the desk in Mr Gibbs’ office – which has a gate on the door to stop her from wandering out unaccompanied. It is her place to relax away from children and she will often lie with her head on Mr Gibbs’ feet as he is working on the computer.
Along with being popular with the children, she also gets visited by staff members.
‘Working with children is a demanding job and it can also be therapeutic for them to stroke Luna when they’ve had a tough day,’ he says. ‘But Luna is particularly obsessed by our school caretaker. She loves him and is always desperate to go over for attention when she sees him.’
Mr Gibbs has conducted basic training with Luna and involved some of the children – taking her for walks on the lead and being taught to stand, sit and fetch. ‘They are learning to give basic commands and Luna is learning to follow. It can really help boost children’s confidence as the dog starts to listen,’ he says. Luna is also undergoing specialist therapy dog training to enable her to specifically support children with autism, including helping with speech and language interventions and games to promote positive behaviour.
‘Luna can be a big social motivator,’ says Mr Gibbs. ‘We have children with complex needs and she can be super-motivating, even better than flashing, light-up toys. What’s better for a child with autism than if they say “sit” and then a big, fluffy dog sits down? She will also respond to non-verbal interactions; there is no pressure for children who are pre-verbal or emerging verbal.
‘Luna is always pleased to see children and will wag her tail; she has no expectations. In fact, we have found that those children with language delay will develop more language than we’d typically expect because they have the excitement of Luna reacting to them.’
Staff have also discovered that having Luna participate in assisted therapy sessions with children can make them more fun and interesting and also helps to reduce anxiety. ‘Carrying out assessments with young children can be tricky, but Luna is happy to sit in the room with them and they can play with her, which stops it from being stressful,’ he adds.
One child was very anxious about entering the school grounds so it was arranged for Luna and Mr Gibbs to meet him outside the gate and accompany him in. ‘She provided a reassurance for the boy and stopped him from being scared as he walked her into school,’ says Mr Gibbs. ‘She is also great for agitated or upset children because she can be a distraction and help to calm them. Luna can be like a mirror, children will soon realise that if they are calm then Luna is also.’
Children in the Boathouse are often given rewards after they have completed a task. ‘So while some will choose to play a game on the iPad, others will pick to have a play with Luna as a reward,’ he says. ‘This is very popular because many of the children enjoy saying hello to her, stroking her and giving her treats. She’s a fluffy, cuddly, moving teddy bear.’
Points to consider when thinking about investing in a therapy dog include:
- The long-term commitment and expense of caring for a dog – who will take responsibility for daily care and for food and vets bills?
- Practical considerations of having a dog in school or nursery – appropriate insurance and policies plus the welfare and well-being of the dog such as toileting and where they will rest.
- Gaining support from staff, children, parents and governors – consider cultural issues, allergies and those afraid of dogs.
- How you will socialise and train your dog to cope in an educational environment and support children.
- How you will introduce the dog to the children and educate them on how to behave around it.