10th March 2020


From tigers, meerkats and snakes, to horses, dogs and tortoises, staff at Wave are using animals to help pupils build their self-confidence and manage their behaviour in the classroom. Research has shown that using animals in a therapeutic way can help reduce stress and anxiety for pupils, as well as increasing their confidence and motivation for learning. This can then lead to improved school attendance and enhanced relationships with fellow pupils and teachers.

Recognised as the most successful trust in the country for providing education for pupils who have been excluded from school, Wave runs six academies based in Cornwall, three academies based in Devon and the Community and Hospital Education Service (CHES) & Torlands based across three centres in Devon and Cornwall. Wave’s animal project began when North Cornwall Academy teacher Andy Wilson started to bring his dog Troy into the school on a regular basis.“Troy was a rescue dog who had been poorly cared for in the past “ explained Andy. “This was something many of our pupils could identify with and they were keen to know everything about him. They loved seeing him around the school and very quickly pupils who were struggling to cope began to ask to spend some time with Troy. After spending a few minutes with him they would normally come back to the group refreshed, calm and ready to engage.” Sadly Troy died suddenly last year which had such a significant impact on the morale of both pupils and staff at the centre, Andy decided to get a new dog to help fill the gap.

Mowgli, who was born at Dartmoor Zoo in October 2017, was donated to the academy when staff heard that they had lost Troy. He is a cross between a male Rhodesian Ridgeback (related to the Great Dane and greyhound group and descended from an old line of hunting dogs in Africa) and a female Estrela Portuguese mountain dog which were originally bred to protect sheep and mountain farms from Iberian wolves.“As Mowgli had not really been around people while he was living at the zoo, it took some time for him to become socialised” said Andy. “The pupils helped to train him and he now works alongside me in the school’s gym and also comes with us on trips. Mowgli waits in the entrance to the school every morning to welcome pupils as they arrive for lessons. He is excited to see every pupil, most of whom give him a stroke or a hug as soon as they enter the building. In fact he usually gets cuddled all day which really softens the feel of the school."

Following the success of Troy and now Mowgli’s presence in the school, fellow canines Bobby and Max have also joined the team at North Cornwall Academy, together with a visiting tortoise, all of whom play a key role in supporting the pupils’ wellbeing. “A tortoise may not seem an obvious animal for children to stroke or cuddle, but some do ask to see the tortoise if they are experiencing problems managing their emotions or behaviour” said Andy. “He definitely gets excited to see them, quite literally “sprinting” across the room when he recognises a voice or wants a cuddle.”

In 2018 Andy introduced the award winning Dartmoor Zoo project to the centre. This sees a group of ‘Super Kids’ from the academy leaving their classrooms every Thursday to work alongside members of the Zoo’s maintenance team to carry out a series of practical tasks. These range from digging drains, laying underground pipes and making manholes, to edging and filling in holes in paths, mixing concrete and mortar and building fences. A second group works with members of the Zoo’s Education Department on Tuesdays on a programme which focuses on academic study rather than practical skills, with modules on animal husbandry and studying zoo animals, as well as Maths and English qualifications. “We tell pupils taking part in the Zoo project that “if they are not in the mood they can go and talk to a tiger” explained Andy. “This may sound silly, but it works. Going to watch an animal (under supervision) provides the children who are struggling to cope with space, open air, and an opportunity for mindfulness, at the same time as giving them a sense of safety. Many of our pupils have developed genuine relationships with the animals at the zoo. Some prefer to watch the wolves and bears, while others like to talk to the tigers, lions, the jaguar and the cheetahs. Others will go and stroke a deer or wallaby, or hold a rabbit, guinea pig, snake or lizard (although not many are as enthusiastic about holding the tarantula, cockroaches or snails!).”

North Cornwall is not the only Wave centre which is using animals in a therapeutic way to provide social and emotional support for pupils.In Cornwall pupils at the Restormel and Caradon centres also have the opportunity to spend time with dogs owned by members of staff, while in Devon Sandy, the resident nurture dog at The Shoreline Secondary site in Barnstaple, has a vital role in welcoming new staff and pupils to the school, as well as supporting existing pupils. Also known as the “Agony Dog”, Sandy provides a listening ear and sympathetic tail wag to anyone facing problems and challenges and can be guaranteed to cheer up the darkest day. At the Stansfield Academy in Exeter canine favourites Stitch and Buddy joined the team last year and, having settled in well. They are helping to support pupils and staff with their wellbeing and are keeping everyone active.

The newest canine member of staff to join the Wave team is Rory, a Portuguese Water Dog puppy who will be welcoming pupils at Glendinning House Academy at Newton Abbott when it opens in September. Supported by Newton Abbott Rotary Club, Rory will be living in a local family home and be cared for by a member of staff at the school. Currently just a few weeks old Rory will start his training as a therapy dog when he is three months. Staff are working with Bales Buddies, a local company who train and provide therapy dogs and animal therapy, and work with a range of schools, education settings and residential, retirement and nursing homes to allow those who can’t have a dog the opportunity to interact with their trained dogs. Some of the Wave centres are also using equestrian learning to support their pupils. At Stansfield, new weekly learning sessions began at the Donkey Sanctuary this term, while at Torlands, the specialist Exeter based centre which provides education for pupils in Devon who are not able to attend school owing to medical reasons, pupils are taking part in a special equestrian assisted learning project in partnership with Running Deer CIC.

This innovative programme is about making connections between pupils and horses. By working with horses pupils can build relationships and develop emotional bonds based on trust and respect. This helps develop confidence and self-esteem, assertiveness, problem solving skills, team working and leadership. While research suggests that giving children the opportunity to spend time with animals produces improvements in behaviour and positive attitudes towards learning, Andy was keen to see the impact of the project on pupils at Wave centres for himself. “Last year we carried out a six month study at North Cornwall to assess the impact of having the dogs (and the tortoise) in the centre, as well as looking at the data for the zoo group” he said.

Pupils at Wave are given a green, yellow, amber or red grade for each lesson. The study showed that having animals in the building increased the percentage of green lessons by 16% over a whole day (from 44% to 60%). The presence of the dog had a greater impact than that of the tortoise, with the tortoise improving the green score by 14% overall and the dog improving the score it by 18%. “While we cannot fully control what happens outside of school, and recognise that some pupils will always be ‘in crisis’, the results show that there are fewer red, amber and yellow lessons and an increase in green ones when the animals are present” said Andy. “This suggests that having animals in school greatly increases the chances of a pupil having a good day.”