A team of dogs is helping pupils in schools across south Wales deal with problems and trauma during the pandemic.
School leaders say the four legged friends are bridging the gap between young people and adults trained to help them.
The success of The Therapeutic Animal Assisted Activities programme, affectionately known as The Baxter Project, has led to better attitudes, behaviour and self esteem.
Teachers said that with isolation felt by many becoming even more acute since the pandemic and lockdown the services of the dogs and their specially trained humans are more important than ever.
The Baxter Project takes dogs into 11 primary and secondary schools to work with children and teenagers. It is adding three more to the list after Easter and has seven more on a waiting list for when it can get more people and their pets trained up.
George the dachshund and owner Abi O’Shea are helping young people deal with problems
Dave O’Driscoll, who started the scheme three years ago with his four year-old border terrier Baxter said the animals act as an ice breaker to build relationships so children eventually feel safe to open up.
Teachers said they have seen tangible improvements among pupils they put forward to take part and walk and talk with a practitioner and their dog.
The programme works with schools to identify young people most at risk of developing anti social behaviour and attitudes as well as those who have suffered adverse experiences such as neglect, abuse and bereavement. Some are in care, or are young carers themselves, others are dealing with self esteem and behaviour issues.
Dave and Baxter’s team also includes Sam Haines and his cockerpoo/labradoodle mix Roo, Sam Emrys and border terrier Trixie, Abi O’Shea and George the dachshund and Yasmin Marshall with Archie, her “Ponchi” – a pomeranian/chihuahua cross.
Yasmin Marshall and Archie, a pomeranian chihuahua cross
Between them the dogs and their owners work with pupils at Adamsdown, Roath Park and Herbert Thompson primaries in Cardiff, as well as Cardiff High, Whitchurch and Willows High in the city. They also go in to see pupils at Bassaleg Comprehensive, Newport, Bryncelynnog Comprehensive, Beddau, Gwenfo Church in Wales Primary, in the Vale of Glamorgan, King Henry VIII School, Abergavenny and Penybont Primary, Bridgend.
While some schools including Llanishen High and Bishop of Llandaff High have their own school dogs to help general wellbeing, Baxter Project dogs and their trained owners go into schools to work with specific pupils one to one.
Dave, a trauma recovery practitioner, youth worker and former probation service officer, stressed that the dogs are not therapy dogs. The animals act as a bridge between the practitioner and young person.
The animals and their owners continued going to schools while they were only open to vulnerable and key workers’ children during last term’s closures.
Marc Batten deputy headteacher Bassaleg High, Newport, said the pandemic has made bad situations worse for a lot of young people.
“There has been a plummeting effect on mood and self esteem during the second lockdown. Some of our young people have lost relatives to Covid.
“Some have suffered bereavement and found Baxter a way to help them express emotions.
“I have been at this school since 1983 and managing mental health has always been a challenge – but the impact of lockdown on mental health has been massive. To be kept away from people has been really hard for young people. Some were crying when they were sent to self isolate. Some were angry.
“Animal companionship is a really good way of allowing people to relax.
“We know that the physical walking and emotional contact with Dave and Baxter helps. Walking around and saying hello to people with the focus on Baxter helps and Dave has a great skill set to ask hard questions in the right way. For us this has resulted in a lot of change.
“Some form tutors have come back saying teachers have noticed pupils in the project have become more confident and more prepared to make eye contact. Some young people have become more reflective and self esteem has improved. It is having a huge bearing on many aspects.”
Sam Haines and his cockerpoo/labradoodle mix Roo
Laura Gleeson deputy headteacher, at Bryn Celynnog Comprehensive School in Beddau, got in contact with the project after the pandemic because of the effect on children.
“Mindful that students’ existing mental health issues would likely be exacerbated by the pandemic, we wanted to give our vulnerable pupils access to a range of wellbeing activities during lockdown,” she said.
“The Baxter Project has become an incredibly effective part of this wellbeing provision. Roo and her owner Sam visit us regularly for one to one and small group sessions with some of our most vulnerable learners.
“They have succeeded in engaging and enthusing several students who have failed to respond to other wellbeing initiatives. Our students look forward eagerly to Roo’s visits and have built a strong bond with both her and Sam.
“Our young people are dealing with a range of issues during unusual and difficult times and so mental health has never been higher on the agenda. We have seen first hand how the Baxter Project taps into the special bond between animal and child to create important and valuable relationships, and a safe and effective context for therapy.”
Ieuan Bartlett, Year 11 wellbeing officer at Willows High in Cardiff said Sam and Trixie have made a huge difference to pupils there.
“There were a lot of stress and self confidence issues and with Covid on top it was all too much for some pupils. A dog is an ice breaker and the person they are talking to is not a teacher so it’s seen as more informal. They feel safe to offload and know they won’t be judged.
“We saw a noticeable difference in pupils working with them after the first three weeks they came in in the autumn term. Some who were shy are now more outgoing and confident.”
Roo gets ready for a busy day at school
Pupils who work with the dogs cannot be identified but have sent in testimonials.
One said: “Time away from school, to relax my brain and calm down. It’s easier to talk because the dog distracts me. I like getting stuff off my chest.”
Another said: “Walking him and talking to him is fun. I like seeing them both. It takes my mind off stuff. It’s private.”
Another summed it up with: “I can get stuff off my chest without having to worry about talking directly.”
Sam Emrys and his border terrier Trixie
Sam Haines, who works with his dog Roo, has previously worked with the police on youth engagement.
“It’s essential to build relationships slowly,” he said.
“It usually takes two to three sessions for children to feel comfortable to open up. The child takes the lead and we go at their pace Roo loves children and holding her lead puts them in control.”
Sam has some idea how some of the young people they work with feel.
“I had anxiety in school and was scared to share. It is our job to listen. I want children to know that we are listening.”