According to the Health Foundation, one in six children aged six to sixteen will experience some sort of mental health issue. Yet a certain school in Sunderland is bucking this trend with their unique and distinct dog therapy to help boost the well-being of their pupils.
Thanks to the help of two furry four-legged friends, children at Argyle House School are more relaxed and stress-free than ever before. This comes at a critical time for many of the older pupils, who have just taken their GCSEs.
Headteacher Chris Johnson often brings his dogs Luke and Bow, two Sproker brothers – a cocker and springer spaniel mixed breed – into the school grounds where the pupils can interact and play with the pet pooches.
This not only lowers their stress levels, as it’s scientifically proven that petting an animal helps people to release happy hormones, but it also teaches the children how to be around animals and to take care of them properly.
From the early age of four and five, children in kindergarten and year one at the school are introduced to the dogs, giving them a chance to familiarise themselves with being around the animals whilst also building up their confidence, dispelling any fears they may have.
Going up the school, the dogs continue to play an active role and are always around for the children to play with throughout their recreation and break-times. During exam season, and when the older cohort of pupils were sitting their GCSEs, Luke and Bow played an even more important part.
The candidates were often given a bit of time with the dogs before entering the exam hall because it really helped to take their minds off the task ahead. Many youngsters found exam-time stressful because they felt there was increasing pressure to perform well. Luke and Bow helped them cope with that anxiety because they provided an opportunity for the youngsters to pause and reset.
Headteacher Christopher Johnson explained: “Our dogs have always played an integral part in school life; the school is like a second home to them. They have their own designated space within the school for their own quiet time, but when they feel ready to play, our children welcome them with open arms.
“We believe it’s very important for our pupils to interact with animals from a young age because it helps them to develop those all-important senses of connection, empathy and caring. Many feel a sense of responsibility towards Luke and Bow, who are part of our school family, checking they have enough water and that their needs are met.
“Luke and Bow absolutely love being around the children and relish the attention they lavish on them. Our staff often show the children how to reward the dogs with special treats when they have been good. This is something they love to watch, particularly when one does a high five with their paw. We do have to limit the treat supply, however, in the interests of their furry waistlines!
“For our older children, Luke and Bow encourage playfulness and exercise at a time of stress, helping them to deal with the challenges of their exams beforehand and helping them to unwind and switch off afterwards. The dogs are a real source of joy right across the school, and we feel very fortunate to be able to include them in our wonderful community.
“Our school prides itself on its expanded curriculum and always strives to give its pupils opportunities which help them to gain a wider understanding of the world, preparing them for whatever the future may hold. Teaching them to look after others as well as themselves is an incredibly valuable life lesson.”
Argyle House is a keen advocate of encouraging a positive approach to mental health, delivering a range of wellness days across the academic year. These teach the children that their mental health is important and helps them learn how to take a mindful minute when things might be building up.
Luke and Bow always make an appearance on these occasions, but often other experts are also brought in to share other tips and tools with the children as they learn how to talk more openly about their feelings.
One current GCSE pupil, in year 11, said: “We’ve had the dogs at the school for as long as we can remember, and they’ve truly been a help throughout the years. We love having them around, and we know we have a safe place to go and spend time with them if we need to relax or de-stress, especially around exam time when the pressure ramps up.
“We’re lucky in a sense that we’ve had this extra support, not through just Luke and Bow, but in how the school teaches us more than just what we need to know to pass our exams. We’re told that it’s ok to feel worried at times, but that message always comes with a new opportunity to find ways to manage these feelings and to turn them into something positive.”
Argyle House has, over the years, also raised money for dog-related charities, such as The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association. It has even had three guide dog puppies live at the school on different occasions as part of their training programme. During this time, the children were able to help socialise the Labradors, and were even able to name them; Rollo, Argyle (1st) and Argle (2nd).
To this day, the school still receives regular updates from these furry friends about how they have progressed in their guide dog career, and the children are always delighted to hear about how they’re doing and to see recent pictures of them in action.