Animals can bring joy, calm and even improve learning outcomes. Absolutely Education speaks to four schools that make full use of pet therapy superpowers

Pets are known for their ability to change the dynamic of hospitals and care homes – bringing pleasure and health benefits to those who interact with them. No surprise then that schools are cottoning on to the value of a bit of animal magic as a means to help children and young people cope with stressful situations, open up when they need a non-judgemental confidant and just enjoy the feelgood value of talking to a four-legged friend.

Why schools love pet therapy
Coco, Wellington’s pet therapist in training, is a hit with pupils and staff

Wellington College

Pet therapist: Coco

Variety: Chocolate brown Springador (Springer Spaniel-Labrador cross)

Coco joined Wellington College in September 2021 and she’s based in the Modern Foreign Languages department with her owner, Head of MFL Dr Rachelle Kirkham. Coco attends all Spanish lessons, greeting students when they arrive and then lying quietly in her bed until the end of class, when she gets up to say goodbye to everyone. She’s picked up foreign language skills and can do all commands (sit, paw, down, high five, etc) in three languages. Alongside her human pals, she has a lot of well-loved toys – Paddington being her favourite– which she’s keen to show to anyone who comes to see her. Coco has her own email address at Wellington, where students and staff can request a personal visit.

Coco has a natural aptitude as a pet therapist, says Rachelle Kirkham, and has been in training since she was eight weeks old. She still has regular training visits from experts at CAL (Canine Assisted Learning) and it’s hoped she will move from ‘assistance dog in training’ to fully qualified school assistance dog this summer. “The programme takes a long time and there are lots of assessments both for Coco and me as handler.”

So what does Coco add to school life. “She has the best role in the school – basically to help everyone feel happy!  Her role is primarily to support the wellbeing of our students by offering sessions where they can come and play, cuddle or stroke her and talk through things that are on their mind,” says Rachelle Kirkham. ” Coco is always pleased to see everyone and it takes us a long time to get anywhere because people stop to say hello and have a cuddle.”

It’s not just students who request meetings. Coco is a regular visitor to staff departments (particularly IT and the Library}. Rachelle Kirkham says there’s lots of evidence about the power of stroking a dog to relieve stress and release endorphins – and there’s an added benefit in a boarding school where students may sometimes miss home and their own animal companions. Coco is especially useful for students sitting Year 11 and 12 oral exams. “She goes and sits next to them, puts her head on their lap or paw on their knee and it really helps them at a time of high stress.”

As to the benefits she brings to students: there’s no question about it. “Even on my worst days, seeing Coco never fails to make me smile and brighten my mood,” says one student. “Coco is the absolute best thing about Wellington.” adds another.

Wellington College

Why schools love pet therapy
Rio is a regular visitor to Wells Cathedral School and loves going out for walks with pupils

Wells Cathedral School

Pet therapist: Rio

Variety: Huntaway-Collie cross

Rio is a rescue dog from Bath Cats and Dogs Home who loves nothing more than spending time with people, chasing tennis balls, eating salmon and ear-scratches. Although he had a difficult start to life and was very nervous when he was rehomed, his new owner soon recognised his strengths of calmness and balance. Pets as Therapy had Rio assessed as a potential therapy dog – he passed with flying colours.

Fully qualified, he started visiting Wells Cathedral School on a weekly basis back in 2017 and has been a star member of visiting staff ever since. “Rio is a huge part of the Prep School staff; his presence is so calming,” says one member of the team. “We see the joy he brings to the children, and as teachers we are often there in line for a stroke and a cuddle too. The security of his presence and the calmness he brings to all is wonderful. He is also the best listener.”

Staff say that the minute Rio enters the classroom, the pupils’ demeanour changes. After the initial excitement of seeing him and saying hello, the atmosphere in the room becomes calmer thanks to his presence. They say the children love to sit on the bean bag and read to Rio and he is extremely pleased to lie next to them, listen to their stories and watch their confidence improving. Staff have noticed that Rio also seems to sense when a particular pupil might be having a challenging day and will make a beeline – going to lie by their feet as they complete schoolwork. Alongside his prep duties, he has special visits with a pupil in the senior school who uses this time with Rio as a form of therapy.

Rio especially enjoys the weekly ‘Walking with Rio’ club, where a group of pupils explore walks around Wells, enjoy the fresh air and learn about responsible dog ownership. He also accompanies staff to Claver Morris, Wells’ prep boarding house, which is a lovely experience for all boarders, but especially those who might be missing their own pets at home.

Pupils at Wells see Rio as part of school life and a great source of comfort. As one puts it: “When I first see Rio I feel so warm as he’s so fluffy and happy – I love dogs so much.”  Another adds. “I love dogs and especially Rio. I am so happy I still get to see him even when I am in the senior school. I feel calm and happy when I am with him.”

Wells Cathedral School

Why schools love pet therapy
Hanford School has multiple animals for pupils to interact with – from dogs and ponies to chickens

Hanford School

Pet therapist: Numerous

Variety: Includes ponies, guinea pigs, dogs and cats

Pet therapy has long been practised at Hanford School in Dorset. There are too many names to list, with some 25 ponies, many dogs, one friendly pig, two cats, five guinea pigs and a growing population of chickens (five chicks hatched just recently).

The Dorset boarding school has long been a destination for pony-mad girls, but also welcomes lots of non-riders who might like to learn (pony lessons are on the school timetable). The sheer variety of animal companions means something for everyone. The animal companions they share their school lives with are a huge part of pupils’ enjoyment and remembered years down the line. Old girls become misty eyed at the memory of making friends with dogs, cats and ponies – an especially riding to start the school day. “I can still remember the excitement of being woken early for a morning ride and having breakfast in riding clothes afterwards!” says alumna Arabella. “My favourite part of school life,” adds Harriet.

One element that is important in this is that all the girls have part of every day left untimetabled. It is their time to do as they choose, whether it’s reading a book under a tree, playing a game, climbing a tree or building a den. Of course, many of the girls make a beeline for animal companions, heading to the stables to help with the ponies, visit the guinea pigs, feed the chickens or walk a dog around the grounds. The school says it’s important that young people not only get the benefits of the animals, but also understand the responsibilities that come with having them as companions – and that includes mucking out, cleaning out and exercising.    

But the extra support pet companions bring are also recognised. “When we have exams and I am feeling super stressed, I run and hug a pony and it makes all the difference,” says one. “The guinea pigs are adorable, so cute and gentle.  It is fun to go and visit them with your friends and have a chat, there’s such a cosy atmosphere in the stables,” says another.

Hanford School

Francis Holland
Kanga is a key team member at Francis Holland and children pay lots of social visits to ContemPlace, the school’s counselling service

Francis Holland School

Pet therapist: Kanga

Variety: Hungarian Vizsla

At Francis Holland School in Sloane Square, life is made happier by Kanga, a trained therapy dog who belongs to the school’s Lead Counsellor Zoe. She has been at FHS for four years, having begun her training as a pet therapist when she was just eight weeks old. She is considered a key member of the team at ContemPlace, the school’s counselling service, working alongside five specialist therapists within the Wellbeing Suite. Students and staff can visit her during the school day for a chat, a pat or to tell her their worries.

Vizslas are renowned for their affectionate nature and loving temperament, says Zoe, and have earned the nickname ‘velcro dogs’ for their loyalty to their human companion. But Kanga is happy to spread her affection wider and many girls will come to lie down next to her for a few minutes to boost their mood. Zoe notes that stroking an animal helps create a sense of calm – particularly useful for any student who is feeling anxious or has neurosensory needs. This helps girls ‘reset’ their emotional state and the rest of their day becomes much more manageable.  

At the beginning of the academic year, Kanga helps pupils starting at FHS to settle in and find their feet. She’s on hand for everyone from Reception children missing their parents to Year 7 girls feeling overwhelmed by the step up to secondary school.  A side benefit is that many friendships are forged when children gather to meet the resident pet therapist.

During exam periods she is also on hand to save the day, helping to calm anyone finding the stress a bit overwhelming. One especially popular therapy service is ‘walk and talk’, where girls take a short stroll round the streets of Chelsea with Kanga and a counsellor – often that’s all it takes to restore perspective and calm those pre-exam jitters.

Staff say Kanga offers a good way for some students to explore the idea of counselling. They drop-in to see her and then find themselves opening up to one of the counsellors. They have realised that if you’re stroking a dog you don’t have to look the person you are talking to in the eye – making it much easier to broach difficult subjects. For all the children at FHS, Kanga is a reassuring confidant. “I love Kanga’s ears – they’re so soft and they listen to all the worries I tell them,” says one.” “Visiting Kanga is the highlight of my day.  She is unfailingly calm and peaceful,” adds another.

Francis Holland School

Further reading: School refusal – understanding EBSA