‘Our dogs add something special to our boarding houses’

After 18 months in which we have seen many young people deprived of their routines and social interaction, Amanda Horlick-Coutts, school counsellor at Bedford School, explains why some schools have supported a canine-led campaign for improving students’ wellbeing

Parents are often reminded to encourage their children to eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, exercise often and get a good night’s sleep. But can a child’s health and happiness be supported in equal measures by spending just a few minutes each day with a puppy playmate?

Teenage years can be turbulent, with young people faced with a storm of changes in their social lives and in their own identities. The pressures of succeeding at school and in social circles, paired with a balance of hormones that can sway by the day, can lead some children to feel anxious, excluded and even depressed.

And while not all children will look to sports or social media for a pick-me-up, schools such as ours are placing their bets on an obvious winner by recruiting school dogs to help improve students’ mental health.

Why dogs?

Although the ‘dogs vs cats’ debate is not likely to be settled anytime soon, we are confident that most of the boys here at Bedford School would agree that our dogs add something special to our boarding houses. Each boarding house has its own dog, living alongside our boys in their houses, and they have all become a huge part of the school experience for a number of reasons.

Integrating the dogs into our boarding houses has added a genuine familial feel. Most of our boys come from homes with dogs, so having a dog at school increases that home-from-home feeling, providing our boys with as much comfort and companionship as they would get from their pets at home.

New boys often settle in seamlessly once they are introduced to our dogs – when in new surroundings with new people, they appreciate the effortless interaction they can have with our furry friends.

Chris Bury, senior boarding master, recalls a story of a boy who was at school when he learnt of his grandpa’s passing and was sad for a long time. As well as the kindness and nurture shown from the staff in the boarding house, the house dog also sensed the boy’s sadness and came to greet him from school every day, stayed by his side and even laid his head on his chest to comfort him.

The loyalty and unconditional love and affection the dog gave really helped the boy through his early grieving days – something that’s not always possible to get from a human, especially when the boy was far away from home.

Keelan Peters, assistant boarding housemaster, with school dogs Finn and Baxter

 

Dogs are proven to reduce stress, anxiety and depression as well as ease loneliness, encourage exercise and make children more playful. Each of these benefits not only improves the living experience that they have at Bedford School, but also provides them with a stable and supportive foundation from which they can succeed in their studies.

The children that have remained in our boarding houses during the coronavirus pandemic have had access to their friends, a well-rounded education and the comforts of animal interaction during a time that has seen some students struggling to adjust to home-schooling.

As we have managed to keep our school moving, our dogs may, at first, appear the smallest of cogs in its machinery. Yet it is simply their presence in the boarding houses that offers our boys the sense of security and connection that boosts their confidence and productivity every day.

Our duty

The dogs living in our boarding houses have become a natural part of our school’s makeup – not only because of their friendly features, but also because they align with our core values.

Seeking to provide our boys with fantastic learning and extracurricular opportunities is just one aspect of how we support them in their teenage years. Our responsibility for their positive wellbeing does not end at the sounding of the bell.

Our helpful hounds have become a set of expectant eyes, listening ears and the warmest of hugs when our boys have really needed them.


Read more: The benefits of boarding for students’ mental health

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