30 May 2024

The dynamic canine duo supporting vulnerable children

by Rebecca Hannant

Learners across the Consortium Academy Trust’s primary and secondary schools are in the lucky position of being supported with their mental health by two wellbeing dogs.

Fox red labrador Marlowe, four, started working in schools in 2019 when he was just 12 weeks old. He joined owner Claire Cassidy who took on the role of mental health support manager for the trust following her previous role as head of year seven at Cottingham High School and Sixth Form College.

Marlowe’s work has seen him support children who have a range of mental health issues and struggle with different aspects of school life. This year another fox red labrador, named Sherlock and 23 weeks old, joined the team, and the dynamic duo have become a popular addition among children and staff alike in the trust’s schools.

Sherlock started working in the schools at nine weeks old. His role has seen him work around children who have attendance problems, especially in the primary schools.

Claire said: “Sherlock helps support our vulnerable learners because we can investigate why a puppy might be quite nervous about coming into school, and we use him to reflect their feelings back.

“It is interesting because the things that the children are worried about, Sherlock might also be worried about, and so we are able to use that.”

Both dogs have been specially trained by prison dog trainers. Marlowe first engaged with puppy training which turned into online training during Covid. They also undergo regular training to support children with a range of issues. The dogs’ aim is to support the most vulnerable children across the trust’s schools, which include Keyingham Primary School and Holderness Academy, with their mental health and well-being.

Claire added: “Sherlock has been doing puppy training for the past 10 weeks or so. He has started with the basics, and he is doing well. At Easter he will go away on a two-week residential course for assistance dogs. His dad’s breeder breeds dogs for Assistance Dogs UK and Guide Dogs UK, so, with his lineage and temperament, he should be perfectly suited to this role.

“Considering his young age and his natural puppy exuberance, the fact that he goes around nine schools a week is amazing. He is experiencing different people and environments each time he visits a school and loves being greeted by learners and staff who are always happy to welcome him.

“With more complex cases, where we have children who are either not attending school, or those who are nervous or suffering from anxiety, Marlowe is a steadying, supportive influence.

“The dogs are just a really good way of lowering people’s inhibitions. At another of our schools, we have a high cohort of learners who refuse to engage with counselling and intervention, but they will come in because the dogs are there. When they are playing with the dogs they will start to open up and talk.

“If you want to know the key to Marlowe’s heart? He has got a real thing for biscuits, particularly custard creams – custard creams are the best thing in the world to Marlowe!”

Both dogs have now achieved social media fame, and pictures of their adventures are posted on Instagram and Twitter. The pair also like to dress up and can be seen wearing a range of different costumes, usually with a seasonal theme.

Marlowe has also starred in school plays. Having previously performed as Toto from the Wizard of Oz, this Christmas he will play the Little Donkey in the Nativity at Keyingham Primary School.

The pair will also star in their very own books commissioned by the trust, which will cover a range of issues from bereavement and anxiety to other mental health issues and provide another valuable means of support to vulnerable learners.