At school with a guide dog
- 5 October 2013
Three years ago, the Guide Dogs charity changed its rules so children with visual impairments could get assistance dogs. So what do pupils gain from a dog - and can this partnership work in a hectic school environment?
Hannah Burgess is 15. She attends Stantonbury Campus in Milton Keynes which, with almost 3,000 students, is the second largest comprehensive school in the UK. She has been taking her guide dog Rory into school since qualifying as a young handler two years ago. Previously she had used a white cane.
"The first day [with Rory] was quite scary, I didn't know what to expect," she says.
"I had only been out on training routes with him on streets - I didn't think he'd just flop on the floor and sleep for ages in my classes like he does. His first day at school showed me how good he was going to be."
Everyone on campus seems to know Hannah's dog. Two young lads walk past pointedly singing the theme tune to Roary the Racing Car.
"Now, I don't think he's a racing car, do you?" replies Gerry O'Neill, head of inclusion at the school.
Hannah ignores it. "Most people have got over a dog being there now. I get a bit of grief but it's not too bad. Some people start screaming and run away because they think it's funny to. It gets better, then a new lot of year sevens come in September and I get it all over again. But it's OK."
Hannah is not completely blind, but has albinism and associated nystagmus, which severely affects her focus. Rory helps locate kerbs, avoid lampposts and Hannah no longer mistakes staircases for slopes with the dog's help. And Rory has stopped her from walking out in front of many cars: "I put full trust in him."
But he has also helped her to connect with those around her.
"I actually have friends now," Hannah laughs. "He's given me confidence to go up and talk to people - he's a great conversation starter.
"Before Rory I was friendly with people in school but I didn't ever want to go out. I wouldn't go to the cinema with them, for instance. I didn't want to be seen with my cane or holding my mum's arm."
At break time, she has special dispensation to remain in one of the halls so Rory doesn't have to go on the noisy and crowded playground.
Hannah's friends benefit from having a pal with a dog because they are also allowed to stay indoors at break with her so they can all hang out together, after Rory has been "spent" - guide dog lingo for a toilet stop.
But, no matter how well trained, dogs will be dogs.
"The first day I brought him here he was sick on the floor and my English teacher walked in it," says Hannah. "Also, I took him out to spend, there was fox poo on the floor, and he rolled in it and I had to go back into class with him."
Her friends, all present, groaned at the memory. "I think people put up with it quite well actually," says Alice, also 15.
O'Neill says he's never heard anybody say the dog shouldn't be at school but has helped advise on issues of safety. Rory doesn't attend science lessons, food practicals or PE lessons because they would give him "unfair distractions".
"Most teachers are excited by the idea of a dog in class," says O'Neill. "There's a feeling that it adds something. And most teachers report that he calms the room."
Any problems that arise tend to be easily surmountable.
Graham Kensett, Coventry mobility team manager for Guide Dogs, has been involved in the organisation's projects with children and young people. He says teachers always worry that a dog may make pupils more excitable, but then find the opposite.
But are all schools as welcoming of dogs as Hannah's school has been?
Kensett says there have been challenges but the majority of schools have been willing to work with them to allow a dog in.
"Children with allergies are sometimes raised as a concern but we have to encourage the school to make reasonable adjustments - maybe a dog could go into the admin office for that period. But allergies are fairly rare."
In the past, school children weren't allowed guide dogs because it was felt that they were not mature enough to be in charge of an animal with routines such as feeding, walking, toileting important for its welfare.
Hannah says a dog is a big responsibility, and she realised early on she'd need to sharpen up if she wanted to keep Rory. She believes it forced her to be more mature.
"He keeps me in a routine, he keeps me from being late all the time, he keeps me from forgetting things. Because I have to do everything for him, it reminds me of doing things for myself."
Twice a week Hannah goes to army cadets where she learns new skills, shoots at (enlarged) targets and teaches younger cadets to march - all whilst accompanied by her dog.
On the last two Remembrance Sundays, Rory has paraded with his young owner down Newport Pagnell High Street. "He steps off on his left foot and he's always in time, so it looks really good," Hannah says.
She would like to join the Army as her career, but with her sight loss that's not possible. So she wants to pursue her second love and qualify as a pastry chef.
O'Neill is pleased at the outcome for Hannah and says that you have to look at the holistic effect of having a dog.
"The difference he's made to Hannah's life outside of school has transformed her as a student. She's going to get better grades because she is a more self-confident young woman with self-esteem and social skills and that will translate into the quality of her work."
Hannah is now out all the time, doing what she wants to be doing - things that a girl her age would normally do. "It's changed so much for me that my mum has recently given me the lecture about treating her house like a hotel."
Her friends say they're so used to Hannah walking independently alongside them now that it can be easy to forget she sometimes needs a bit of help.
"We've left her behind once or twice when she's not got Rory with her," says friend Megan, laughing. "And when we realise, we've gone 'OMG, we've lost the blind girl!'"
Would your child benefit from an assistance dog at school? Or perhaps you suffered at school due to a lack of mobility or confidence? Email your story to firstname.lastname@example.org