Being a student can be tough. Some school days can be overwhelming; trying to get good grades, participating in extracurricular activities, and socialising with friends can tire one’s mind, body and soul. In these moments, it’s important to have a safe space to fall back on, or a special companion to help you through.
Australia’s Hills International College knows this best, and is committed to building up a strong well-being programme to combat this. Here, a Head of Wellbeing, Year Level Coordinators and a full-time counsellor readily work to support students and staff through any of their needs. Recently, therapy dogs were added to this mix, brightening the school day for approximately 600 students from Prep to Year 12.
It was an initiative set forward by College Principal Kevin Lynch, who sparked the idea after seeing a therapy dog in attendance at a conference. Following this, he conducted some research on the effectiveness and benefits of having therapy dogs in a school environment, particularly in reducing student stress, anxiety, and helping improve classroom attendance.
With this, Lynch introduced two new furry companions to campus: Barney and May. The two therapy dogs joined the College campus recently, in term three, to be exact. This makes Hills one of the few schools in Australia to approach student and staff wellbeing by introducing a certified therapy dog programme.
Head of Wellbeing at Hills, Ben Pope, has commented that the dogs have been a great benefit to the school campus. “Barney and May have been bred and trained to work in a school environment to provide wellbeing to students, staff, and the Hills community,” he says. “They provide regular support to students who struggle with anxiety, whether from school or home conditions, or as a result of exam stress.”
It is common to see the two dogs accompanying students throughout their school days. This stems across everything, from greeting students at their cars in the morning to providing a calm presence during stressful periods, such as examinations. The Primary School has further introduced a “Puppy Pass” time as a positive behaviour incentive each week, giving young students the opportunity to spend one-on-one time with Barney or May.
For international students leaving home for the first time, Barney and May provide great help. Hills is familiar with welcoming students from many different countries, and implementing a strong international programme to support them. “With our diverse student population, we know the dogs will be able to assist our local, international, and dormitory students, and staff alike,” Pope says.
Barney and May are from Empower Assistance Dogs, which is experienced in providing very experienced and well-trained young dogs to work in a range of different environments. Barney and May themselves were specifically bred to work in a therapeutic capacity through a long lineage of service dogs.
Hills is taking this one step further by training their on-site staff to specialise in handling and caring for therapy dogs; a unique initiative for a school in Australia. Four members of staff are being guided by Empower Assistance Dogs to be handlers for the dogs. One dog is assigned two handlers. The primary handler is responsible for ownership of the dog and actively resides with them at their house, while the secondary handler cares for the dog throughout the school day if they are unavailable.
To ensure Hills’s staff are prepared for this task, the four members of staff have attended a week’s worth of practical training to become accredited therapy dog handlers. More than that, they were specifically trained to work with dogs in a school environment, a corporate environment, and a simulation of an aged care facility. This makes them some of the first in the country to become nationally certified as therapy dog handlers by Animal Assisted Services.
This strong focus on well-being has resulted in Hills being home to students who are determined, ambitious, and academically-driven. Outstanding sporting achievements are a familiar feat at Hills, as well. The Hills Golf Academy, for example, provides a championship tradition and state-of-the-art golf coaching training programme to aspiring young golfers, many of whom are sent to the US on scholarships.
The school is expanding such opportunities for students to thrive by introducing a Volleyball Excellence Programme, which will be run by nationally and internationally-recognised coaching staff with deep experience in this field. Purpose-built beach volleyball court facilities are currently being built, and will be completed by the end of 2023.
Many students at Hills are extremely excited for this prospect. “When I started, I didn’t even know what volleyball was,” says Simran Sandhar, a Year 10 student. “I joined volleyball as an extracurricular activity, and found that I really liked it. After that, I was approached by the trainers and joined the Clover Volleyball Club. Since then, I have improved so much, and I really love the sport.”
Driven students like Sandhar are part of the community at Hills, and the school only hopes to encourage more of such aspirations. “There are a number of secondary school students intent on becoming future volleyball champions, and with the Olympics in Brisbane in 2032, Hills hopes to facilitate a nationally renowned Volleyball Academy at the College,” says Lynch. “This year will prove to be the College’s best.”
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