Therapy from mans best friend

By Tamara Hooper
December 19 2021 - 2:00am
Dougal's ability to relax the children is evident when he visits classrooms.

ANIMALS can be the greatest therapists in the world, breaking down emotional, cognitive and physiological barriers, without the use of words or the risk of judgement, just the presence of an animal and its natural willingness to listen.

The bonds we form with animals are not measured by the same set of structures and rules we employ with other 'people', it is for this reason that animal assisted therapy (AAT) has been so widely and successfully utilised for generations.

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Over the years many famous medical and psychological experts have championed the benefits of animals for a range of therapeutic and wellness purposes.

In fact acclaimed founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale, is thought to have championed AAT when she discovered that patients of differing ages, living in a psychiatric institution, were somewhat relieved of anxiety when they were able to spend time with small animals.

Even Freud documented the use of his own dog to get patients to open up and improve communication.

Widely recognised research has shown the overwhelming positive psychological, cognitive, physical and social ramifications the presence of dogs have on humans of all ages.

It is no wonder then that in more recent times the use of therapy dogs, story dogs, companion dogs, service dogs and support dogs has become more prevalent across a wide range of education providers and workplaces, with the benefits having immediate effect, lowering stress, anxiety and promoting communication and physical health.

For St Peter's Primary school, Inglewood, deputy principal and therapy dog carer, Paul Brennan, there is absolutely no doubt that having a therapy dog has had a resoundingly positive effect on the children and teachers at the school.

The decision to put a therapy dog into the school environment was the decision of the leadership group, including principal Pina Hutchinson, and the school social worker at the time, Jenny Biancotti.

The school was one of the first to have the full-time therapy dog program in the Catholic education system.

"I have always been keen on having a therapy dog in the school environment," Mr Brennan said.

"From a personal point of view we have had rescue dogs at home and have been foster carers for about four or five years."

This natural affinity for dogs certainly helped with the decision to include a therapy dog, as did the acknowledgement of an increase in anxiety in the student population and behavioural issues often experienced amongst large groups.

"There was a big spike in anxiety especially at drop off, with separation being one of the causes," Mr Brennan said.

"I was also the first person on call to assist students and then having a parent who worked at another school that had just gotten a therapy dog, bring the puppy in, really made us move forward with the research into getting one."

So it was midway through 2019 that Dougal, the cavoodle, was introduced to the St Peter's Primary school community.

"After doing research I found what we had to do in order to have a therapy dog at the school," Mr Brennan said.

"In Western Australia this involves abiding by the Dog Act 1976 and having someone that owns the dog, making the dog their responsibility in the case of any problems.

"I found a document that held all the relevant information, from legal obligations to training and I refer anyone interested to it."

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Story dog companion, Jo Rees, Noah Kowald, 16, Canna, Alli Gould and CCGS Lia De Sousa, with Koji as Noah reads a story he had written himself.

That document was the Wellbeing in Schools, Independent School Counsellors' Association (WA) case example of: Cooper.

Wanting to also have a non-allergenic breed, Mr Brennan discovered cavoodles to be an ideal breed due to their friendly temperament and non-allergenic coat, that was non-shedding/moulting.

"I knew of a breeder in the Northern Territory called NT Oodles and was lucky they had a puppy available, it was as though Dougal was just meant to be with us, it was fate," Mr Brennan said.

"Dougal went through all the appropriate checks and vaccinations, I took him to puppy school and then I did all the assistance dog training myself, having had lots of dogs to train over the years."

To say Dougal settled into life at St Peter's Primary school and into the Brennan household, is an understatement - he walked straight into the hearts of the school community and his carers with his invisible healing powers taking effect immediately.

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From nine weeks old Dougal attended the school, just one day a week at first, to get used to the children - St Peters Primary has from three year old kindergarten through to year six, with kindy through to year six being triple stream, consisting a total of 760 students enrolled.

The students also had to learn the rules, there had to be a routine and it had to be fair on Dougal.

So after two years Dougal has been the catalyst and champion of significant and quantifiable changes in the student and teacher cohort.

"The changes were instant," Mr Brennan said.

"For example we had 14 children who were petrified of dogs and within the first week that number became zero.

"Teachers request Dougal in their classrooms at certain times.

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"He aids with passive conversation and is also fantastic when kids are hurt or feel unwell, he provides an emotional link and comfort.

"He works on so many levels."

According to Mr Brennan, Dougal is an extension of the teaching staff and the eight specialist/support staff at the school.

"We try to bring him everyday and he lets us know if he wants or needs a day off," Mr Brennan said.

"Dougal has become an ambassador for therapy dogs in schools and we have taken him to other schools for visits, to show just how great the whole concept is and how it makes a difference."

Making a big difference on both a mental and educational front is Koji, the two and a half year old Kelpie cross Huntaway, owned by Christ Church Grammar School teacher Alli Gould.

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Koji is a story dog, which Ms Gould explained - is a dog who is trained to listen to young children who have difficulty reading or don't like to read.

"They don't judge," Ms Gould said.

"They just wag their tails and listen or go to sleep."

Ms Gould said she had watched a program on story dogs while she had been on long service leave and was inspired to move forward with the concept.

"I absolutely loved the idea," Ms Gould said.

"I trained to be a story dog companion alongside two of my surf club friends, as obviously once I returned to full-time work I couldn't volunteer."

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Jo Rees was one of these friends and she now takes Koji to work each Thursday and listens to the children read.

Koji is owned by Ms Gould, while Ms Rees is a companion.

Koji's journey as a story dog commenced in term two this year, with children at both Christ Church Grammar School and Wembley Primary School benefitting from the program and Koji's involvement.

> Christ Church Grammar School (CCGS) boarders Lochee Forshaw (left), 16, Nita Downs station, Broome, Reuben Dring, 17, Carnamah, Fletcher Wetherell, 17, Bandeeka Beef, Boyanup, Regan Tubby, 17, Wahroonga station, Carnarvon, Angus Park, 16, Bunbury, Tom Offer, 15, Bunbury, Bede Wetherell, Boyanup, Alli Gould, CCGS teacher, Koji, and wellness prefect, Parker Robinson, 18, Perth.

"The kids love her and have made such great gains with her passive help," Ms Gould said.

"Some have asked to go and select new books from the library, which was never on their horizon previously.

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"Some had made such great gains that Jo asked the school psychologist if other children should be swapped into the program.

"The psychologist replied that not all of the children are there just for reading."

Koji's presence has seen both marked results and subtle progression in students.

Dealing with four students per week as a story dog is coupled with time at Christ Church Grammar School with older students and boarders who spend long periods of time away from home.

It is here also where Koji's farm/working dog breed provides another level of comfort.

"She has also started coming to the study lab at Christ Church Grammar School after school and has been read Shakespeare excerpts, debates, algebraic calculations and mock trial speeches and also some dog cartoon books," Ms Gould said.

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"Koji has also been sponsored by a very generous Christ Church Grammar School family who are as passionate about young children being literate as Jo and I and Koji are.

"It has been an awesome partnership and Koji just loves kids and getting among them."

Ms Rees said they were put through comprehensive training.

"It was a robust course," she said.

"The dog is trained and then we as companions train also.

"At first I was under the impression we would be there to assist with literacy and actual reading, but it's not the reason we are there.

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"It is more about the child and how they interact with the dog."

For the boarders at Christ Church Grammar School, it is all about mental health and Koji gives them each a different experience.

Fifteen-year-old Tom Offer, said Koji reminded them of home and their own pets.

"She is great company and is very calming," Mr Offer said.

"It is almost like a sedative quality being around Koji."

Lochee Forshaw, 16, from Nita Downs station, Broome, said growing up your dog is one of your mates, so having a dog visit campus reminds you of that.

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"It is like having a little piece of home here with us," Mr Forshaw said.

Koji is not just a story dog to the students at CCGS, she is also a fantastic therapy dog, that brings a little of home to the boarders who spend long periods of time away from home or even just the day students who enjoy having a dog on campus, like this group of students during Mental Health Week in October.

Ms Gould said the biggest drawback for her was not being able to visit all the kids in the program herself, now that she was back from leave.

Another area that has embraced the concept of animal assisted therapy is the Western Australian Department of Justice.

The Perth Children's Court Justice Facility Dog, Winston, a five-year-old black Labrador, commenced duties on September 21.

Winston was trained by Guide Dogs WA to interact gently and calmly with victims, witnesses and other court users to reduce the stress and anxiety commonly experienced in the courthouse environment.

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He and his handler will attend the Children's Court two to three days a week as part of a 12-month pilot program to assess the viability of extending the service, including to other WA courts.

Department of Justice director general Adam Tomison said facility dogs used in a range of legal settings internationally and other Australian jurisdictions have been highly successful in reducing anxiety in people interacting with the justice system.

"Reducing stress for victims, witnesses and other court users provides the dual benefit of making the justice system more trauma sensitive for vulnerable people, and increases engagement with court processes, which improves efficiency," Dr Tomison said.

"The Department of Justice is committed to improving outcomes for victims of crime, witnesses and other vulnerable people engaged with the justice system.

"Achieving this requires a range of targeted interventions across the justice system."

The pilot program will cost $97,000 and is being managed by the Office of the Commissioner for Victims of Crime.

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Commissioner for Victims of Crime, Kati Kraszlan said research showed that the experience of going to court could be a risk to the psychological safety of victims of crime, witnesses, and children.

"We hear of victims describing the experience of giving evidence in court as distressing and sometimes akin to the offence itself in terms of traumatisation," Ms Kraszlan said.

"The physiological effects of stress and anxiety can significantly impact a person's memory, and ability to concentrate and communicate.

"We have launched this pilot program based on strong evidence that interacting with a trained facility dog has positive effects on a person's wellbeing.

"In the presence of a calm, relaxed dog, people experience physiological changes which combat the effects of courtroom induced stress."

Winston, the five year old black Labrador, is Perth Children's Court Justice Facility Dog on a one year trial basis and has been settling into his job since September 21.

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President of the Children's Court of WA Hylton Quail is very supportive of the Justice Facility Dog Pilot Program being held at the Perth Children's Court.

"Young people involved in the criminal justice system are particularly vulnerable as many of them have experienced disadvantage and trauma," judge Quail said.

Guide Dogs WA selected Winston for this role based on his skills, abilities and personality.

Winston has a reputation as a 'happy' dog, characterised by the fact his tail is almost constantly wagging.

His handler has tertiary qualifications in social work and animal ethics, as well as having a professional background in child protection and experience working in the Children's Court.

Guide Dogs WA chief executive officer Anna Presser said Facility Dog programs throughout Australia and internationally have had overwhelmingly positive results.

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"We're pleased to partner with the Department of Justice on this ground-breaking initiative in WA, which will have meaningful outcomes for young people and families involved in the criminal justice system," Ms Presser said.

"Winston has undergone a comprehensive and tailored training program developed and implemented by our highly specialised professional trainers.

"He is ideally suited to a career as a Justice Facility Dog and we look forward to seeing him have an impact in this role."

Winston and his handler will operate in the public waiting areas of the courthouse or private witness waiting areas.

They will not enter the courtroom or remote witness facility while court is in session.

People can touch, pat and interact with Winston if they choose to.

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If a person is upset or anxious the dog can provide comforting body pressure by placing its head on their lap or lying on their feet.

The handler and dog will never approach anyone directly without their consent.

Public signage will inform court users of the dog's presence each day and advise them to inform staff if they are afraid of the dog or do not wish to be near it.

While discussing the uses in the justice system it is also poignant that the Department or Public Prosecution has also started a trial with therapy dogs to placate and conciliate prosecutors who have to deal with many stressful and emotionally draining case subjects and workloads.

Having such a positive influence on the lives of people, it is easy to see why dogs are often referred to as man's best friend.

It is amazing to see the effect of the simple act of just being near a person a dog can have, when it is something many people take for granted.

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