Special schools are increasingly using animals to help engage children with complex and profound special needs. BBC Wales education correspondent Colette Hume went to see how one dog is helping children to communicate.
It’s the start of the school day for the pupils at Ysgol y Gogarth School in Llandudno, but there’s an unusual addition to the classroom.
He’s a cocker spaniel called Bertie, and he’s a therapy dog.
Bertie spends one day every week with the children, all of whom have severe learning difficulties.
“This class in particular has the most profound and complex needs within the school,” said head teacher Jonathan Morgan.
“The children have multi-sensory impairment as well as learning disabilities – their curriculum is specific to their needs and Bertie plays an important part in that once a week.”
Mary Oliver and Bertie are helping the children to communicate
Bertie comes to school with his owner Mary Oliver, who worked in education with Conwy council until retirement.
When her partner died three and a half years ago her friends persuaded her to buy a dog and she decided to get involved in the Pets as Therapy Charity, working with children with the most severe physical disabilities and learning difficulties.
“I talk to the children about Bertie – with the children who have visual impairments I get them to feel his coat or his ears, we’re trying to get a reaction from the children, we’re always looking for a breakthrough.
“Just last week a child who had previously pulled Bertie’s ears… well, he picked his ears up and then put them down again very gently – and that’s a tremendous breakthrough.”
Just last week a child who had previously pulled Bertie’s ears… well, he picked his ears up and then put them down again very gently – and that’s a tremendous breakthrough
From the noise in the classroom it’s clear even the most severely disabled of the children know Bertie is there.
Class teacher Catherine Parkes said encouraging the children to communicate was vitally important, and she believed bringing a dog into the classroom could encourage the children to make themselves and their feelings understood.
“Nobody here has what we would call traditional or conventional communication skills but they are all really effective communicators in their own way,” she said.
“So you have to work with these young people for quite a long time to understand their individual communication and when Bertie comes that just exemplifies what we’re trying to achieve within school and in this class.
“For example if Joshua makes a sound – we know that means he’s happy and excited and that’s always the case when Bertie is here. That’s his way of saying that.”
Lucy Edge isn’t able to speak but it’s clear the 12-year-old enjoys spending time with Bertie.
Children with visual impairments can feel Bertie’s coat or his ears
As Mary helps her to stroke his ears, her mother Liz explained how the little dog had made a big difference.
“You can tell she’s excited as soon as Bertie comes into class, she shakes her legs, her head and her hands, her face lights up, there’s a lovely big smile, she shows lots of expression – something she doesn’t really show very much,” she said.
“She can’t talk but she can make herself understood in other ways. Since Bertie came along I’ve gone out and bought two puppies – she seems to like dogs, so I’ll follow what she likes.”
Around 4,500 cats and dogs are working in schools and hospitals across the UK. The Pets as Therapy charity thinks as many as 130,000 children and adults come into contact with therapy pets every week.
In Llandudno, it’s clear that a small dog is making a big difference.