See how therapy dogs in schools help vulnerable kids

MacKillop Family Services is continuing its mission to reconnect vulnerable children with their education by matching the dogs and kids and placing therapy dogs in schools.

We provide an update on everything the Paw Pals Program has achieved since our last article on the program last year.

A Paws Pal therapy dog sitting on a student's lap for Animal Friendly Life's article on therapy dogs in schools

Estimated reading time: 1 minute

Updated: 24 April 2024

A unique program using therapy dogs in schools is helping vulnerable kids reconnect with their education.

Paw Pals is an initiative of Mackillop Family Services that provides therapy dogs to vulnerable children who are disengaging from learning.

Since its inception in 2018, the program has grown from a single facilitator and therapy dog to a robust team of 14 facilitators and over 20 therapy dogs across Victoria.

In the last year alone, Paw Pals expanded its reach, supporting more than 800 children, up from 650 in the previous years. The dogs work with children in overcoming educational disengagement through the aid of therapy dogs.

Students with learning differences or special needs often struggle to engage with peers, concentrate on studies and learn effectively due to a host of classroom challenges. Social and emotional difficulties that kids face outside the school gates also hamper their progress at school.

“With the number of Victorian students with learning difficulties steadily rising over the past decade¹, it is more important than ever to give kids a learning lifeline,” said Brona Walshe, MacKillop’s Education and Engagement Programs Director.

MacKillop Family Services’ Paw Pals program uses Animal Assisted Education to connect with young people who find it difficult to attend school due to issues such as anxiety or learning difficulties, which make it really challenging for them to be in a classroom.

“Paw Pals facilitators work with therapy dogs to help vulnerable children who are disengaging from education,” says Walshe.

“(they help them) manage their emotions and behaviour, improve their confidence, and reconnect with learning.

“They provide a level of support that simply isn’t available in schools.

“Helping children who struggle to control their emotions by teaching them how to respond to and command the dog.

“Once calm, the children engage in learning activities with the dog.”

A therapy dog gets a tummy rub from a student for Paw Pals therapy dogs helping students in class

This year’s Paw4Kids Matched Giving Day will be held on April 30. The team hope to raise $360,000 to further support and extend the Paw Pals program.

The campaign is already receiving generous support from their matching partners. CCI Giving, Catholic Development Fund, iCare Staffing, Queensland Gives, Paw Prints Matching Circle, and Major Partner Petstock Foundation, all financially support the program.

“Community support and donations help us to empower one more child with education and ignite a lifetime of opportunity,” said Walshe.

Meet Harrison and Indie

Participant: Harrison
• Age: 12
• Background: Struggled with severe anxiety and social interactions.
• Paw Pal: Indie, a golden retriever.
• Impact: Twelve-year-old Harrison was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder when he was a young child. He struggled through primary school because of frequent outbursts and then constantly refusing to go to school.
His parents were in despair; however, amidst the emotional turmoil, a learning lifeline emerged in the form of four legs and a furry face.
Harrison found solace in the presence of Indie, a black Labrador from MacKillop Family Services’ Paw Pals animal-assisted education program. Regular sessions with Indie have helped Harrison improve his communication skills and overall confidence. He has transitioned from remote learning back to regular school attendance.

Original article

With the support of therapy dogs, MacKillop Family Services has supported over 650 kids to get back to education in the five years it has been running.

Starting out in 2018 with one golden Labrador and one facilitator, MacKillop has grown the program to eight facilitators and nine dogs who work across Victoria.

Paw Pals therapy dogs Animal Friendly Life
Labrador Barney is part of the unique Paw Pals program (image supplied)

This week, the organisation hosts its Paws4Kids Matched Giving Day fundraising initiative, to support its Paw Pals program.

Paw Pals relies 100% on community funding and the suport of charity partners like The Petspiration Foundation.

This year, Paws4Kids aims to raise $350,000.

There was a 50% increase in the rate of students not attending Victorian schools in the three years to 2021.

Mackillop Education Director, Anne Henderson, say Paw Pals is producing amazing results for young people disengaging from learning.

“Finding strategies that encourage kids back to learning is not straightforward,” says Anne.

“These young people are dealing with issues that can range from problems in their family, living with anxiety, being in out of home care or struggling to go into class after spending a considerable time learning remotely”.

Therapy dogs
Millicent is one of Paw Pals’ therapy dogs helping kids get back into class (image Paw Pals)

Anne says the dogs help boost their confidence and improve their interaction with classmates and teachers.

“A therapy dog can be the key to making that special connection with a child.

“Once a child has bonded with a paw pal, they are more open to working with an education facilitator.

Sherralea Cassidy, The Petspiration Foundation’s Charity and Events Lead, says they are proud to partner with such a fantastic initiative.

“Mackillop’s Paw Pals program is such an important initiative,” she says.

“And we hope by doubling every dollar we can help make a meaningful difference.

Shiloh’s story

11-year-old Shiloh’s life was turned upside down last year when her mum was no longer able to care for her. Shiloh made the move to live with her dad, whom she hadn’t seen for close to three years.

For a child who craves order and routine, the upheaval increased Shiloh’s anxiety. Making it increasingly difficult for her to concentrate at school and engage with her classmates.

Shiloh and Labrador Indie, one of the wonderful therapy dogs in Australia helping kids: for Animal Friendly Life
Shiloh has developed a special bond with Indie (image supplied)

Shiloh was withdrawn and wary of new relationships when she met Labrador Indie.

And she found it difficult to trust or maintain friendships.

Shiloh’s dad, Daegal, says Shiloh started to come out of her shell soon after starting MacKillop’s Paw Pals program.

“It’s amazing how quickly Shiloh responded to the therapy dogs,” says Daegal.

“She learned to understand the dogs’ body language and that they have emotions similar to people.

“It has really helped her to realise that her feelings are natural and to recognise her triggers.

“Paw Pals is so much more than taking a dog for a walk”, Daegal says.

“Although Shiloh loves to do that too!”

“Shiloh knows the dogs trust her and she has earned that trust by being and caring for them.

Therapy dog Animal Friendly life
With Indie’s support, Shiloh made a return to the classroom (image supplied)

Shiloh is preparing to move to high school next year. MacKillop’s Paw Pals team is helping her prepare for another episode of change in her life.

“We missed out on so much of our relationship when Shiloh was younger,” adds Daegal.

“She is a much happier little girl who is making great friendships.

“And through Paw Pals, she is learning skills that will help her throughout her life and future relationships.”