Having a furry, four-legged member of staff with a friendly wagging tail makes school extra enjoyable for children, but it also has huge benefits in terms of youngsters’ development.
Maypole Primary School in Dartford is one of a growing number of schools across Kent, and indeed the country, that is realising the benefits of introducing a dog to lessons and play times.
Max, an 18-month-old black and white cockapoo, has been at the school for just over a year, having started in September 2017.
In that short time, he has made a huge difference to the lives of numerous children, and he also brightens up the day for teachers and other staff.
Max, who lives with assistant head teacher Claire Hunnisett when he’s not in school, greets children at the gate in the morning and visits different classrooms throughout the day.
When the children have PE lessons outside, Max runs around the field with them.
On his first birthday in April, children and staff celebrated with a special assembly where they sang ‘Happy Birthday’ and gave their furry friend presents.
But Max is much more than just an adorable friend for the children to play with. The young pup has helped many pupils deal with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties.
One child, who used to get upset about leaving their Mum in the morning, happily comes into school now their first task of the day is to give Max a treat and take him to class.
Another child struggled to cope in large groups and often had to leave the classroom for learning breaks. The child learnt to calm themselves down so they could visit Max without startling him. Interacting with the pooch de-stressed the pupil further, enabling them to return to class and continue learning. He even sat in tests with the pupil to keep them calm and focussed.
Several children, who were reluctant readers and too shy to read out loud in front of an adult or their peers, happily practised sounding out new words in front of Max and their reading has come on in leaps and bounds.
A further child was non-verbal when they arrived at the school and needed highly specialised speech and language support to help them learn to talk. They really liked Max and so Mrs Hunnisett created story books about the dog to encourage the child to interact with the animal and speak to him.
Classes that work well and impress their teacher, or who do well in the Buster’s Book Club reading challenge, can have Max in their room for a lesson, so he encourages hard work and good behaviour.
When he first arrived, children who achieved 100% attendance for a set period were allowed to spend time with Max as a reward.
The idea for a school dog arose when a lost pooch was found outside the grounds and Mrs Hunnisett, half-jokingly, suggested they could keep it if its owners weren’t found. Luckily that animal was reunited with its family but the idea had been implanted in the assistant head teacher’s mind and she began researching.
She discovered cockapoos (a cross between a cocker spaniel and a poodle) make ideal school dogs due to their gentle temperament and the fact they don’t shed too much fur, making them better for people with allergies than some other breeds.
Mrs Hunnisett said: “Max just loves being around children and they are fantastic with him. We try to involve him in as much as possible. When the children have their school photos taken, Max has his done as well. We organised a sponsored obstacle course event to raise money for Battersea Dogs and Cats Home and Max also took on the challenge, raising his own sponsorship cash.
“Max is a great addition to Maypole Primary School. He has a really calming effect on the children and is used, as well, as a reward incentive for behaviour, for attendance and for the class with the best reading of the week. The pupils and staff really love having Max in school.”
The children are only allowed to interact with Max once their parents/guardians have returned a form giving permission and the dog is always supervised by a member of staff. Children who are frightened of dogs have the option of being introduced to Max gradually with the aim of overcoming their fear.
Head teacher Linda Wilmann added: “Max is so good at bringing the children in to school in the morning. They might be upset or not want to leave Mum but as soon as they see Max they cheer up and they go in with him.
“It allows children to experience what it’s like to have a pet. They have to learn how to behave around him and they know they can’t be too loud because it might frighten him.”
The school developed a dog policy and carries out risk assessments to ensure Max and the children are safe and happy and get the most out of the experience.
A number of other Kent schools also have school dogs, which benefit pupils in a similar way to Max.