Dogs: Llandeilo Primary School uses pets to help pupils

By Ashleigh Crowter and Llyr Smits
BBC Wales Live

  • Published
Media caption,

Meet the dogs helping school children ease their anxiety, aid their studies and improve their well-being

How about having a dog for a classmate in school?

This is what one primary school head teacher wants to have in every classroom.

Karen Towns has pioneered the use of dogs at Llandeilo Primary School, Carmarthenshire, over the past decade to provide well-being support to her pupils.

Her own West Highland terrier Millie is always on hand during the school day for children who need time out to regulate their emotions.

"We have a bit of a joke that I don't employ anyone unless they love dogs, that it's an interview question," she told BBC Wales Live.

"The teachers have all wanted to have a dog themselves.

"The aim is that every class will have a dog in school because we've found that a calming, homely feel to the school has really benefitted the education, pupils' engagement in activities and wanting to come to school.

"Attendance has improved, behaviour has improved.

"Staff even use the dogs for well-being - 'I've just had a terrible day, can I come and stroke the dog?'. So there are lots of benefits. "

Image caption,
One Llandeilo primary school pupil said the dogs made her feel less nervous on her first day

Stroking Millie and even reading books to her has proven to be an effective way for pupils to express their feelings so they can concentrate on their studies.

Samia recently started at the school after her family moved to Llandeilo.

"On my first day at school, I was excited but also nervous but then I saw Rosie, and she helped me to feel less lonely, and more happy," she said.

"I think having a dog here is amazing because when you're feeling a bit sad, you can stroke them and it makes you feel better."

Image caption,
Head teacher Karen Towns' dog Millie is always on hand to support pupils

Mrs Towns said dogs had been particularly beneficial for pupils with additional needs, including one 10-year-old girl with autism who initially refused to come to school because she did not like dogs.

Mrs Towns reassured her parents it would work and gently introduced her to Millie.

"The dog became her life," she said. "It was the only reason she came to school."

Dr Helen Lewis, an associate professor of education at Swansea University, has researched how dogs are being used in schools, taking in responses from more than 1,000 teachers around the world.

"I think, after Covid and lockdown, the social aspect is really challenging for some people," she said.

"And lots of schools are saying that the fact the dog is going to be in today has made children more positive coming in."

All the dogs who come into Llandeilo primary school have been trained for what can be a stressful and noisy environment.

The charity Burns - By Your Side, run by the John Burns Foundation in Kidwelly, specialises in training dogs and their owners to support children with their reading.

"Ultimately the dog has to enjoy visiting the school and we'd never want to put a dog into a school environment that didn't want to do it," said Katie Gardener, one of the trainers.

"All the schools that come on board with us are aware that the dogs have these 16 weeks' worth of training and we always say to the volunteers when they start that at the end of the 16 weeks, you may not become a volunteer because we may have realised your dog isn't suitable after all."

Image caption,
Alie the Bernese mountain dog is a favourite among the pupils

Carmarthenshire council has backed the initiative.

Glynog Davies, cabinet member for education, said: "As well as Llandeilo primary school, who have carried out a lot of positive work in this area with much success, there are also other schools in the county that have introduced, or are looking into, introducing therapy dogs within the school environment."

A Welsh government spokesman added: "Schools can arrange for pets to visit their sites, subject to their own risk assessments."

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