How Berry Street therapy dogs support vulnerable Victorian children
Animal assisted therapy is gaining popularity in Australia, and Berry Street is no stranger to the benefits of therapy dogs: Vijay, Lochie, Comet, Boofa, Phoebe, Koda and Neon provide support to the children and young people we work with.
About therapy dogs
"The role of therapy dogs is to react and respond to people and their environment under the guidance and direction of their owner"1. They provide psychological or physiological therapy to individuals other than their owners2. Unlike service dogs, therapy dogs are encouraged to interact with a variety of people… and patting the pooch is highly encouraged!
The human-animal bond that occurs between an individual and a therapy dog can illicit many positive outcomes, notably, increasing the attachment response that triggers the hormone oxytocin, which increases trust in humans3. In addition, research has shown therapy dogs can help reduce stress and provide a sense of connection in difficult situations4. Using therapy dogs in response to traumatic events can assist in reducing the symptoms of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety that may result from the trauma experienced.
Benefits of therapy dogs
Children bond quickly and closely to animals and tend to confide in them. Therapy animals, such as dogs, have contributed to countless health, social, behavioural and emotional benefits, and may have positive impacts on overall wellbeing and operate as psychological assets.
According to The Conversation, animal assisted therapy can:
- teach empathy and appropriate interpersonal skills
- help individuals develop social skills
- quickly build rapport between professionals and clients
- improve individual’s skills to pick up social cues imperative to human relationships.
The role of therapy dogs at Berry Street
Some of the children and young people referred to Berry Street have experienced levels of trauma that make it hard for them to trust adults and talk about their situations. Therapy dogs are a source of attention and affection, which creates an uncomplicated bond of joy and attachment.
The Morwell campus of the Berry Street School has welcomed a new member to the team – therapy dog, Vijay!
Vijay has had lots of training because he was going to become a Seeing Eye Dog, but didn’t quite make the cut due to his anxiety. Vijay enjoys spending his day getting pats and laying at people’s feet, so he is adapting well to life at the Morwell campus!
Throughout Vijay’s day he joins our morning circle where students greet each other, participate in a positive primer and set intentions for the day. Vijay encourages calm across the campus and supports students with their learning.
Vijay also supports students and staff to get fresh air and participate in activities throughout the day. Recently, Vijay was visiting a Junior class where students were identifying each other’s character strengths. As part of the activity, students decided to identify some of Vijay’s character strengths too, which included kindness and gratitude! Students were practicing and demonstrating empathy as part of this activity.
Like many of our young people, Lochie developed incredible resilience through his challenging journey to find his calling as a therapy dog at the Berry Street School Noble Park campus. After a year living on the streets and six months in a shelter, this beautiful Rottweiler cross Kelpie found a loving home and trained for a year to be a certified therapy dog.
Lochie has a talent for reading a room and seeing which student, parent or staff member needs a cuddle or a play. His favourite things are playing tug, diving into bean bags, races down the hallway, climbing into laps (even though he weights 30kg) and sitting at the table like a human. Lochie has found more love than he could ever have hoped for from his new family of students and staff at Berry Street.
Comet is an eight year old Cavoodle, with a hint of spaniel, that loves being a therapy dog at the Berry Street School Noble Park campus. Comet became a certified therapy dog two years ago and has loved working with young people when they are having a bad day, need help focusing on their learning or need some additional TLC in their day.
Comet’s favourite activities with the students include walks to re-centre and refocus, cuddles on the beanbag and chasing the ball (often not bringing it back). Comet is a big fan of morning tea, food tech and lunchtime, not surprisingly. The students have put together a puppy care plan for Comet, which includes being mindful of the foods he may access, loud noises and being careful when closing doors.
Boofa joins Mark at one of Berry Street’s residential care units, which accommodates four adolescents presenting with challenging behaviours. Boofa provides young people with emotional support, either by sitting with them or encouraging play time. He creates a sense of calm in the unit, making it feel more like a home purely through his presence, and boosts the wellbeing of the young people and staff members alike. He helps creates warm and positive memories for young people in care.
Boofa and Mark also recently took home the 2018 Residential Worker of the Year Award.
Therapy dogs can also increase motivation for learning. Phoebe, an Education Support dog at the Berry Street School in Ballarat, helps students get through the day without trouble. Phoebe spends her days supporting students who may have social and emotional learning needs.
Likes: The rubbish bin, food, naps, pats, antlers, puddles, walks, human mum, yoghurt treats, belly scratches, low hanging food, crumbs, and of course, her students.
Koda, our amazing Border Collie and graduate from the Animal Assisted Therapy program, was with us for almost 6 years - attending outdoor activity days, providing comfort to upset children, and always greeting people with a friendly wagging tail.
Koda visited young people in residential and foster care, as well as students at the Berry Street School. She accompanied traumatised children to counselling sessions and other stressful events, and encouraged young people on the Berry Street Wilderness program. When young people are upset, angry, bored or depressed, Koda’s irresistible joy is a friendly antidote to young people in need.
Neon is a much-loved therapy dog that works in Berry Street’s Northern Region in the Restoring Childhood program. Neon spent the first two years of his life training to be a seeing eye dog but he was just too playful; that’s how he came to be a therapy dog. Neon is a skilled and caring listener, he seems to instinctively know when somebody is feeling unsafe or in need of cuddles – he is adored by staff and clients.
1. The Conversation, Therapy dogs can help reduce student stress, anxiety and improve school attendance, published on 20 March 2018.
2. Alliance of Therapy Dogs, What is the difference between a Therapy Dog vs a Service Dog?, published on 12 March 2017.
3. The Conversation, Therapy dogs can help reduce student stress, anxiety and improve school attendance, published on 20 March 2018.