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A team of dogs is helping students in schools across South Wales deal with problems and trauma during the pandemic.
School principals say the four-legged friends bridge the gap between young people and adults who have been trained to help them.
The success of the Therapeutic Animal Assisted Activities program, affectionately known as The Baxter Project, has resulted in better attitudes, behaviors and self-esteem.
Teachers said that given the isolation that has become more acute for many since the pandemic and lockdown, the services of the dogs and their specially trained people are more important than ever.
The Baxter Project is running dogs in 11 elementary and secondary schools to work with children and teenagers. After Easter, three more will be added to the list and seven more will be on the waiting list when more people and their pets can be trained.
Dave O’Driscoll, who started the program three years ago with his four-year-old border terrier, Baxter, said the animals act as icebreakers to build relationships so that children eventually feel safe to open up.
Teachers said they saw noticeable improvements in the students who suggested they attend and walk and talk to a practitioner and their dog.
The program works with schools to identify young people who are at risk of developing antisocial behaviors and attitudes, as well as those who suffer from negative experiences such as neglect, abuse and grief. Some are in care or even young caregivers, others deal with self-esteem and behavior problems.
Dave and Baxter’s team also includes Sam Haines and his cockerpoo / Labradoodle mix Roo, Sam Emrys and Border Terrier Trixie, Abi O’Shea and George the Dachshund, and Yasmin Marshall with Archie, her “Ponchi” – a Pomeranian / Chihuahua cross .
Between them, the dogs and their owners work with primary school students in Adamsdown, Roath Park, and Herbert Thompson in Cardiff, as well as Cardiff High, Whitchurch, and Willows High in the city. They also visit students from Bassaleg Comprehensive, Newport, Bryncelynnog Comprehensive, Beddau, Gwenfo Church in Elementary School in Wales, Glamorgan Valley, King Henry VIII School, Abergavenny and Penybont Elementary School in Bridgend.
While some schools, including Llanishen High and Bishop of Llandaff High, have their own school dogs to promote general wellbeing, Baxter Project dogs and their trained owners go to schools to work one-on-one with specific students.
Dave, a trauma recovery practitioner, youth worker and former probation officer, emphasized that the dogs are not therapy dogs. The animals act as a bridge between the practitioner and the youth.
The animals and their owners continued to attend school, while only being open to vulnerable and important working-class children during the last semester’s closings.
Marc Batten, assistant principal at Bassaleg High, Newport, said the pandemic had made things worse for many young people.
“During the second lockdown, mood and self-esteem deteriorated significantly. Some of our young people have lost relatives to Covid.
“Some have suffered grief and found Baxter as a way to help them express feelings.
“I’ve been at this school since 1983 and mental health management has always been a challenge – but the mental health effects of lockdown have been massive. Being kept away from people has been very difficult for young people. Some cried when they were sent to self-isolate. Some were angry.
“Animal friendship is a really great way to allow people to relax.
“We know that physical walking and emotional contact with Dave and Baxter are helpful. It helps to walk around and greet Baxter-focused people, and Dave has great skills at getting tough questions right. For us this has led to a lot of changes.
“Some form tutors came back and said that the teachers noticed that the students on the project had become more confident and more willing to make eye contact. Some young people have become more thoughtful and self-esteem has improved. It has a huge impact on many aspects. “
Laura Gleeson’s assistant principal at Bryn Celynnog Comprehensive School in Beddau contacted the project after the pandemic about the impact it had on children.
“Aware that existing student mental health issues are likely to be exacerbated by the pandemic, we wanted to provide our vulnerable students with access to a range of well-being activities during the lockdown,” she said.
“The Baxter Project has become an incredibly effective part of that feel-good measure. Roo and her owner Sam visit us regularly for one-on-one and small group sessions with some of our most vulnerable learners.
“They managed to motivate and inspire several students who did not respond to other wellbeing initiatives. Our students look forward to Roo’s visits and have built a strong bond with her and Sam.
“Our young people face a number of problems during unusual and difficult times, and as a result, mental health has never been on the agenda again. We have seen firsthand how the Baxter Project uses the special bond between animal and child to create important and valuable relationships and a safe and effective context for therapy. “
Ieuan Bartlett, 11th grade comfort officer at Willows High in Cardiff, said Sam and Trixie made a huge difference to the students there.
“There were a lot of stress and confidence issues and with Covid on top it was all too much for some students. A dog is an icebreaker and the person they are talking to is not a teacher so they are considered more informal. They feel safe unloading and know that they will not be judged.
“We noticed a noticeable difference in the students who worked with them after the first three weeks of the fall semester. Some who were shy are now more sociable and confident.”
Students who work with the dogs cannot be identified but have submitted certificates.
One said, “Time away from school to relax my brain and calm down. It’s easier to talk because the dog is distracting me. I like getting things off my chest. “
Another said, “It is fun to go for a walk with him and talk to him. I like to see them both It distracts me from things. It’s private. “
Another summed it up like this: “I can get things off my chest without worrying about speaking directly.”
Sam Haines, who works with his dog Roo, previously worked with the police in the youth sector.
“It’s important to build relationships slowly,” he said.
“It usually takes two to three sessions for children to feel comfortable to open up. The child takes the lead and we go at their pace. Roo loves children and if they keep their lead they are in control. “
Sam has an idea of how some of the young people they work with feel.
“I was scared in school and was scared to share. It is our job to listen. I want children to know that we are listening. “