When a child is anxious, there is no greater comfort than having a beloved educational assistance dog meet them at the school gate or lie next to them in class. That’s the role of Thor, the three year old Labrador who has been adopted by the 380 pupils at Willoughby’s St Thomas Primary School. Thor has stolen the hearts of students, teachers and parents alike, said primary handler and school Deputy Principal Peta Herschderfer, who Thor lives with when he’s not at school.
“He visits most classrooms throughout the week and spends time doing a variety of things including ‘listening to reading, ‘counting’ with children and generally just making children smile,” Ms Herschderfer said. “He also goes into classrooms when I am working with classes during maths time, and the benefits have been numerous. The staff love having him around for stress relief and children’s moods change quickly when a dog is giving them some unconditional love. Thor also loves spending time with the children and is starting to even enjoy the busyness of the playground.”
The school applied for Thor through Assistance Dogs Australia after seeing the proven benefits of education assistance dogs, which have been shown to reduce blood pressure, anxiety, fatigue and depression, while providing much-needed emotional support for students who need it. Thor might just sit while being petted or nuzzle up to a friend during English but having him around teaches children how to care for animals, as well as giving them the confidence to learn. In fact, studies show children find the non-judgmental ears of an animal like Thor the perfect way to improve their reading skills.
“Thor meets children at the gate, particularly those that are struggling to get to school or are upset or worried about something,” Ms Herschderfer continued. “Everybody loves him – even children who may have started out being scared enjoy seeing Thor at school and have asked to pat him.”