A former stray dog which was given a new home when it wandered in off the street has earned herself a new role – as a therapy pet at a Derbyshire school.
Staffordshire bull terrier-cross Bella has started work at Shirebrook Academy as its official school dog with the task of working alongside the school’s Student Welfare Team within its SEN and general support and its BASE behaviour support units.
She currently works four days week at the school – she has her own school tie and official timetable – and her duties include offering a listening ear, acting as a reading buddy and allowing herself to be fussed and stroked by students experiencing emotional distress.
Bella belongs to the school’s safeguarding officer, Abi Grocutt, who says that she has already achieved notable success, having helped a number of students overcome panic attacks.
Bella has also encouraged one student who is on the autism spectrum to become more communicative after he spent time with her and, over time, developed the confidence to express himself.
Abi is also a mental health first aider at the school and though her work with a support group has seen how dogs can play a positive role in improving people’s mental health.
She got the idea for introducing a dog to the Academy after visiting a school where another dog was performing a similar function and, after holding a trial run with her mum’s puppy, Basil, during Mental Health Awareness Week in May, she decided to press Bella into service at Shirebrook Academy.
Four months later, Abi says she is thrilled by Bella’s success, especially since Bella has overcome her own challenges, having been adopted by Abi’s partner, Luke, when she was a stray and turned up on the doorstep of the home Luke and Abi share in Chesterfield four years ago.
Abi said: “Bella is very soft and loves being fussed, so she is very happy to sit with students when they’re upset, which really helps to calm them down.
“There are a lot of studies which look at animal therapy and the effect that dogs can have on young people’s social skills and we’re observing plenty of ways in which Bella is carrying out a therapeutic role.
“It’s wonderful to see how the students who are feeling anxious respond so positively to her, while we have one ASD student who never used to communicate to speak to me but who, since her has been spending time with Bella, will now happily chat to me about what he’s been up to.
“It’s amazing to think that she is doing this work now bearing in mind her history. We’ve had her chip scanned and we know that she was originally owned by people in Barnsley, but somehow she ended up in Chesterfield and wandered off the street in to the house after he’d left the door open on a hot day.
“She’s got a lovely temperament and we really don’t know why her owners rejected her, but she is proving to be a great success at school.”
Shirebrook Academy was one of the first schools in the country to recruit mental health first-aiders and Bella’s appointment is one of a number of initiatives taking place at the Academy to help students to deal with emotional and mental health issues that they face.
Mark Cottingham, principal of Shirebrook Academy, said: “We take staff and student wellbeing very seriously at our school and it’s wonderful to hear how Bella has had such a positive impact in such a short time.”
Shirebrook Academy is based in Common Lane, Shirebrook. It has 840 students and was rated “outstanding” by Ofsted in 2013, with staff and pupils alike praised by inspectors, who also singled out the considerable care the school gives to individual students as one of the Academy’s particular strengths.
In May 2017 Shirebrook Academy joined Aston Community Education Trust (ACET), benefitting from the efficiencies to be gained from high quality centralised services and the challenge and support of ACET’s School Improvement Team.
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