Part of the role of a senior mental health lead (SMHL) is to share effective practice. All our Wellbeing Club members can share their good practice by becoming a spotlight school, giving other schools an opportunity to learn from them.

Tudor Grange Academy, a large secondary school in Sollihull, is one of our most recent spotlight schools. One of their pastoral leaders, Laura Sweetman, kindly agreed to speak with Worth-it about all the amazing things Tudor Grange are doing, including telling us about their school wellbeing dog, Blue, the focus of this Q & A article.

Can you tell us a bit about your school?

Tudor Grange is a big 11 to 18 comprehensive school in Solihull, West Midlands with a diverse demographic.  In years 7 to 11 there are about 1400 students,and we have about 300 students in our sixth form. We have a lot of students with specific needs and wellbeing is inherent from year seven through to 13.

How did the pastoral dog come about?

We have many wellbeing initiatives and this one is particularly close to my heart! As a family, we didn't have any pets. We were looking at getting a dog and wondered if we could have a dog that would be useful in school. Liverpool City Council were into the idea of pastoral dogs, but at a primary level. And then, within our trust, one of the head teachers mentioned to me that she took her dog to work on a Wednesday afternoon with her. She explained to me that her dog had been accredited as a pet therapy dog.

There are lots of different steps that you've got to go through to bring a pastoral dog into a school. I put a proposal together of what I thought the mental health benefits would be with ways in which I thought the dog would be able to help. My case study was based on my previous school where we had a sixth form dog who would be in the sixth form office all the time. The school went through a bereavement and the siblings of the child who had died found it difficult to speak openly, but when they were walking the dog with a member of staff, they would talk more. That was really the trigger of well, maybe just him being at Tudor Grange might do some good.

Blue - Tudor Granges' School Wellbeing Dog

How did you train Blue to be a pastoral dog?

Part of the criteria that the school had said I had to meet to say yes, was that we had to make sure he was temperament assessed. I didn't get a rescue dog because you're not necessarily sure of all their previous triggers.  Our family got Blue when he was eight week sold. He's a Labradoodle and he's enormous! A lot of therapy dogs are small but Blue fills the office – he's lovely,a gentle giant. We decided to have his therapy assessment done by Pets As Therapy, who are a charity. You have to have had the dog with you for a certain amount of time, and they have to be at least nine months old when assessed. It's all about the temperament of your dog and how calm they are. Blue got 100% on his assessment and was really proud of himself!

What does your pastoral dog do in school?

Blue now comes into school every Tuesday. Pets As Therapy are really clear about animal welfare. It is tiring for dogs when they're in school because they're the centre of attention.We have a morning session and an afternoon session, and we make sure Blue has exercise and time for a little rest with no people in between. That works well.And he has a regular caseload of students who come and see him. Some students come because they've got dog phobia, to come to a trusted pet so that they can build up their confidence. Some come to talk to us while he's there because they just feel more comfortable. Some come and don't talk at all; they just sit with him. And they go from an agitated state to a calmer state, which is lovely to see. And some students come who have got behavioural challenges and their time with Blue is a reward if they're able to stay in lessons or if they're able to meet targets on their target card.  

What impact have you seen with the students that have access to your pastoral dog?

Many students who've come to see us with anxiety speak more freely when they're around Blue. We've had students who have had panic attacks and ticks, and he's very good at calming them down. It's also about a kind of carrot approach to students where if we can just get them back to the lesson and do 20 minutes, they can come and have lunch with Blue or come for a walk on the field. It gives a totally different angle to be able to reach students and helps when you're trying to build a rapport with them. Some students who are quite private may have a pet and will come and they will superficially talk about pets and home, and then it leads on to those deeper conversations. Blue has helped us find out more information that I genuinely don't think that we would have got from some students without that kind of introduction. Some students start their day off by coming to say hi,they end their day by laying on the floor next to him, having a hug before they go. He just lets them, it’s adorable!

Pastoral dog with students

Staff come and visit Blue too. Having a wellbeing dog also helps our students to see us differently – if they see staff interacting with him, it's perhaps a different side of the teacher that they've not seen. It's a way of showing another side to your character and shows you're approachable, I think. Blue has the right temperament for the role, he is very calming.

What advice would you give to other schools who might be thinking of getting a pastoral dog?

In secondary schools, our timetables don't work like primary, so there are more logistical constraints. My main bit of advice is not to over commit. Make sure that you are clear on what you're able to do in terms of supporting your capacity and maintaining the dog's welfare. Make sure you have the right permissions and the right insurance.

Think about where a pastora ldog can make the most impact. Look at where the need is. There’s logistics to think about too – we've got a dog toilet built, for example. You need to consider things such as when are you going to be able to give him just some outside time, and where's that going to be? How is that going to look in terms of lunchtimes, break times?

How do you manage when Blue isn’t at school?

Blue has a different harness and a different lead when he's at school, so that he knows when I get those things out at home, where we're going and what we're doing. I think that those little things make a big difference to his understanding of what his role is.

We try and keep the rest of his routine quite steady. But when I say ‘you’re coming into school with me’ his tail wags and he understands. A pastoral dog needs to belong to someone, to their family: it’s not a school pet that can be passed around.

Do you think he's having an impact on staff wellbeing too?

Staff have been really positive.We get here quite early, so some staff pop and see him before the students arrive. Some days, if you're just having a little bit of a rubbish day, you can just come in with your cup of tea at break, say hi, and then off you go. And it just makes your day a little bit better, doesn't it? If you've got a dog to hug? Well, I think so.

Want to find out more?

Join our DfE assured programme, Wellbeing Club for SMHL's to watch the full interview with Laura Sweetman Director of 6th Form at Tudor Grange Academy. By joining Wellbeing Club you will gain access to our in-depth courses, resources, examples and ongoing support. Helping you lead and develop whole school wellbeing.

Many thanks to Laura and Tudor Grange for sharing their effective practice.

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