Working with rescue dogs in an educational setting with animal assisted interventions

Angus is a rescue dog from Cyprus who was left to die on the streets and when rescued weighed less than 17kg. As a result of his poor start to life Angus has underdeveloped muscles on his back legs. Despite his poor start to life Angus has a strong connection with people and shows none of the psychological symptoms that some dogs who have had similar experiences may show when treated so poorly by humans. Angus has been with our family for three years and has been working with me in schools and colleges for the last two years. I am a canine behaviourist and psychologist and I work with Angus and my other dogs in schools and colleges. I have a particular interest in the science of safety and the role that our autonomic nervous systems play in processing our emotions. My transition to this form of work started when we did some voluntary work in a local nursing home and I had the opportunity to observe the joy and relief that Angus brought to the residents.

May be an image of Adam Dunn and smiling

I have many fond memories of our visits to the nursing home and all of them were significant for the residents and staff that we spent time with. One particular meeting stands out to me and encapsulates the power of connectivity and positive reciprocity that dogs can bring to our lives. As we were walking through a corridor we walked past a resident who was sat relaxing in his chair. I think about this connection frequently and for me it is one of the most powerful examples of the lifelong positive memories that sharing our lives with dogs can bring to us.

Alone, far from home with a lifetime of memories. I sit here alone invisible to many, deep in my thoughts. Oh how I wish I was a young boy again, back in the emerald isles on the farm with my father. Such happy memories that I still remember after all of these years. Suddenly, I’m taken back closer to those times when I feel the familiar soft and wiry coat and the sound of a gently nuzzling dog. I open my eyes and I’m home back on the farm with my father on the emerald Isles. This gentle soul, who came over and nuzzled me, the same dog that my father and I had all of those years ago. I’m back with my father walking across the fields and through the meadows. I recall how my father wrapped the dogs feet in cloth to protect them from the frost. I lift my head, open my eyes and smile and I see those eyes, so gentle, so kind. Those soft, kind eyes that recognised the light in my soul and connected me with my life’s memories.

Anxiety and in particular social anxiety is sadly in my experience very common amongst students in secondary school education. If you are anxious you cannot learn and yet in the national educational curriculum little significance is put on this creeping epidemic. National focus in the UK like in many other countries is on results and not on the social and emotional development of the students. There is strong scientific data notably Blair & Razza, 2007 ; Elliott & Dweck, 1988; and McClelland et al., 2007 to hypothesise that, Self-regulation or the ability to regulate one’s emotions has been shown robustly to predict academic achievement over and above other child characteristics such as intelligence. I work in some amazing schools whose principals and staff provide caring, sensitive and understanding support for those students who are experiencing anxiety. These staff inspire me and give their all to help and support their students.

Angus

Struggling to process their emotions, being shutdown, withdrawn, feeling lost and abandoned are common experiences that many students who suffer from anxiety may encounter. When in such an emotional crisis engaging and connecting with people is so frightening, who should they trust and will they judge me? This is a short verse I wrote after me and Angus shared the experiences of a young student who was processing an emotional crisis.

Surrounded by noise which I can’t comprehend, I feel lost and without a friend. I’m worried that people will judge me and think that I’m just naughty. What I really need most is a friend that I can hug close, feel safe and connected with and share my innermost thoughts. I know people are trying to help me me, but sometimes people scare me, they just don’t get me. Playing with his ball happy and content, I notice Angus, smiling at me and I wonder, what would it take for me to feel such wonder. Suddenly there is a commotion, Angus has lost his ball and I see the look of sadness in his eyes. I’m shutdown and withdrawn how can I help him? From within me I feel the rise of empathy, should I wait or intervene, I can see Angus getting anxious and I know what that may mean. I fight through my foggy feelings of disconnection and move to retrieve Angus’s ball, the look on Angus’s face, those eyes they say it all, they have rescued me from my inner turmoil.

This behaviour initiated a connection between the student, Angus and me and through working together sensitively and compassionately the student began the transition from being withdrawn and disconnected to socially engaged and connected to others. I met the student again later that same day and they had drawn a picture of Angus which they gave to me. I found this so humbling and emotional and it made me pause and consider what a significant impact Angus had had on this student in such a short space of time. I feel privileged to have shared this experience with another.

May be an image of dog

Children learn and retain more about subjects that they have an emotional investment in and in our classroom work Angus has supported many students back into the classroom. To support these students and observe their self-confidence and self-efficacy growing in the classrooms really is inspirational. Students who, due to anxiety have been unable to participate in classroom learning have returned to the classroom with the support of Angus.

Not only does Angus’s presence support the student but it has a positive impact on the class, encouraging attendance, increasing learning, supporting positive connectivity and engagement throughout the lessons. When Angus walks through school there is a buzz of energy students call out to him and staff hug him, many say it’s the highlight of their week. There is a serious side to the work that we do and all of the skills that the students learn are transitional to the classroom and outside of school. One of the tools I use to to help the students transition these skills are desk cards, which the students use whilst in class as visual reminders of the key skills.

These slides of Angus have a dual purpose with the written content supporting emotional regulation. The images are centred on Angus’s eyes and they draw students in to help them remember those moments when they worked with Angus. Feelings of self-reciprocity are developed and the ability to recount those feelings is supported by these slides, in-between and after our sessions have concluded.

I’m going to finish this article with one of my favourite recent memories of an occasion when Angus helped a primary student who was suffering from an emotional crisis. and trapped in my inner world, I’ve got to get out. The need to survive takes me outside. Alone in my thoughts. Nobody who understands I’m in a state of shutdown, I can’t comprehend. Through the corner of my eyes I see a friend who, he understands me. He doesn’t judge me. He smiles at me and asks no favours. He is my fuzzy faced Angel .

Adam Dunn and Angus

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