The presence of dogs in schools is becoming increasingly frequent as the potential benefits of children’s interaction with pets of all species, but particularly dogs, is more widely recognised and promoted in some quarters. The growing popularity of dogs in society also makes it more likely that parents at the school gates will be accompanied by their canine family members and local dog owners may try to utilise school grounds to exercise their pets, without due consideration for the safety or health of others.
These circumstances will undoubtedly introduce risks that will need to be evaluated and appropriately controlled by the schools governors and management team, and it begins with clarifying the reasons and purpose for having dogs on school premises and what is to be gained.
Thought will need to be given to risk assessing what category of dog(s) are being considered for introduction as well as those that may already be present e.g.:
Some of these dogs take part in short periodic visits with their volunteer owner/handler to provide educational support opportunities such as the Kennel Club Foundation’s ‘Bark and Read’ initiative, working with individuals or small groups of children with reading etc. Whilst other dogs take part in more structured activities as part of a therapeutic programme or practice, where a trained therapist/handler will often work with the dog to provide comfort and reassurance to a child who is anxious, withdrawn or lacking self-confidence or who perhaps needs additional emotional or behavioural support following a traumatic life event such as bereavement.
In the UK therapy dogs are not considered to be assistance dogs – this is because an assistance dog is legally permitted to accompany its client, owner, or partner, at all times and in all places. A therapy dog does not have these same legal privileges.
Whatever category of dog is likely to be at the school (including the uninvited ones), management should prepare and deploy a clear policy and guidance for staff, students and possibly visitors to follow that includes the following aspects:
You have to be able to recognise the hazards and risks, and determine which are likely to be significant before you can implement proportionate controls to manage them, so a thorough risk assessment will need to be conducted ideally involving a range of objective individuals.
Like people no two dogs are the same, although some breeds do display certain characteristics or tendencies which may be favourable, and others that are not. The size and age of a dog and the type of coat it has might be significant factors to consider depending upon available space, age of children and whether anyone within the school population suffer with allergies.
Just because a dog behaves perfectly in their home environment or when out on a busy high street, it is no guarantee that they will continue to exhibit the desired temperament (usually calm and friendly manner and not too boisterous) when placed in a strange, frantic or often noisy school.
Dogs have teeth and they may well use them if they are distressed, feel threatened, trapped or become over excited, but they also bark, lick, chew and hold things in their mouths as part of how they interact with humans. Unfortunately these behaviours can be easily misinterpreted by people who are not familiar with being around dogs, or are even fearful of them.
It should not be overlooked that dogs can also present significant health risks for humans either via parasites or contact with faeces etc.
Probably the most important of all factors to consider is the level of obedience training the dog and handler have received, as ultimately it is the bond between the two and the willingness of the dog to reliably follow instructions that will keep situations under control. However, it is important that obedience is achieved through a reward based approach and not a punishment one. The dogs have got to enjoy and benefit from the interactions with children and the environment they are placed in, otherwise there are serious ethical question to be resolved.
A carefully considered plan based on the deliberations of the risk assessment will need to be drawn up and implemented if Therapy, Assistance or School dogs are to be successfully integrated into school activities.
This should include:
The Kennel Club have developed a comprehensive set of ‘Standards of Practice for Providers of Animal Assisted Interventions in Schools’ that will provide you with further guidance on creating an environment where both dogs and humans are adequately protected and can benefit from each other.
Controls for visiting, stray or trespassing dogs:
In most cases having dogs in schools is unlikely to affect your schools insurance arrangements providing you have taken reasonable steps to assess and manage the risks. Some insurers may ask that you inform them of the presence of dogs and the type of activity they are involved in.
Responsible dog owners should also take out public liability insurance for the third party risks their animals may create, but it is not mandatory in the UK. Some pet health insurance policies may include a level of public liability insurance, but you should check the terms, conditions and exclusions and inform the insurer if your dog is regularly attending school as cover may not extend fully to this environment.
While there are lots of studies and examples that dogs can have beneficial effects on the health and wellbeing of humans, it is not universally accepted that this makes it justified for us to use animals in this way, when there may be alternative strategies that can be employed to alleviate the issues within schools. So it is incumbent on owners and school management to ensure the dogs welfare remains the primary concern.