‘We don’t always need advice. Sometimes, all we need is a hand to hold, an ear to listen, and a heart that understands. Sometimes all we need is a dog.’
In 2021, College Principal Kevin Lynch attended an AHISA conference and was captivated by a Therapy Dog in attendance with Peter Foster, who was the Principal at Hymba Yumba Independent School at the time. It sparked a passion for the programme to be included at Hills College in 2022 to help support the wellbeing of staff and students.
Four members of staff were chosen to be handlers for the dogs - a primary handler and a secondary handler for each dog. The primary handler is responsible for ownership of the dog and resides with them at their house. The secondary handler can take the dog throughout the day at school, and when required for short stays if the primary handler is unavailable. The four staff members had the privilege of attending a week’s worth of practical training to become accredited therapy dog handlers. All four were among the first in the country to become nationally certified as therapy dog handlers (Animal Assisted Services). Along with the practical element of this course, they completed 19 units of theoretical training to understand their responsibilities as handlers and the importance of following all the correct protocols when the therapy dogs are at the College. There were lots of elements that were covered but some of the most important were positive training; establishing relationships with animals and animal-assisted services; roles and responsibilities of handlers; monitoring animals during activities and understanding the role of a therapy dog in different environments. The handlers all had training in working with the dogs in a school environment, a corporate environment, and a simulation of an aged care facility.
The training dogs used ranged from very experienced to well-trained but young dogs (around eight months old) that were already working in a school environment. These dogs were amazing and were specifically bred to work in a therapeutic capacity through a long lineage of service dogs. The team were expertly guided in their training by Tracey, Anne-Marie, and Craig from the Empower Assistance Dogs. With their many years working with dogs they will continue to guide the College and its handlers in their training.
‘Barney’ and ‘May’ began their Therapy Dog journey with us at Hills in Term three this year. After a full term of working with both our staff and students, it is evident that their presence on site is having an effect. They have supported some students when leaving their car in the morning by being an ‘assistant’ handler and helping us walk them around. They have been a calming presence when students need to talk through some things. They have supported our students as they undertake examinations, have joined our Prep 2023 interviews to help reduce any anxiety our future preppies may have, and finally have assisted us with supporting students that are having a moment of emotional dysregulation. We have also introduced ‘Puppy Pass’ time, as a positive behaviour incentive each week in the Primary School. Each teacher has a 3-D printed ‘Puppy Pass’ that they give to one student that has demonstrated our College LAWS (Live with Compassion, Act with Integrity, Work with Diligence, and Strive for Success). They then get to spend some one-on-one time with Barney or May.
We are so grateful to have these new additions at the College and look forward to growing the program in the future to support our school community further.
Stuart Ablitt and Jessica Panther