WAGS AT SCHOOL
Dogs are a really effective means of engaging young people in conversation and positive interaction. Young people who are disengaged from their learning, and at risk of disengaging from school altogether, can benefit from an environment within which they can discuss their individual barriers to learning and explore strategies to overcome them.
WAGS is also a really effective way of gaining greater insight into a student’s thought patterns and underlying therapeutic needs. Students who appear combative or listless in the classroom can display a whole different set of behaviours with a dog. The student is also far more likely to open up and discuss their hopes and fears when they have a dog for company. This can provide a whole new data set on which to base decisions relative to a student’s level of engagement.
Past experience in working with young people and dogs in the school environment has taught us:
- Running the group on the school oval is a great way to engage students who are either disengaged from the classroom or not attending school at all. Working on the school oval is a great way to familiarise students with the school grounds without the pressure of being in a classroom with peers.
- Groups can be organised into gender, age or any combination of both. There has been no appreciable difference in the success of groups to date based on their gender / age make-up. The important aspect is the size of the group – groups of up to 8 work best, with a mix of ability throughout the group.
- Groups lose focus after 1 hour. Activity tends to degenerate and learning is severely impacted to the point that behaviour in the classroom after a session can be worse than prior to the session.
- Benefits of the program are maximised when the teaching staff is familiar with and supportive of the program. A training session with teaching staff is not only a valuable and enlightening team building exercise, it is also a powerful professional development activity.
- Many of the young people targeted by the WAGS program are also very interested in sport. Sport is a healthy outlet for students that struggle in the classroom and can often represent the only time in a student’s day where they really feel they belong and are able to shine. Training sessions with the dogs should therefore not clash with PE classes or training where possible, so students are able to take full advantage of both opportunities.
- Students engaged in the program should be encouraged to come regardless of their record of behaviour. Therapeutic intervention is most effective when it can be depended on in its regularity. If the sessions with dogs are used as a bargaining chip not only does the student miss out on support when they are most in need of it, but they are also less likely to engage deeply with the activity over the long term.