When I was watching BBC Breakfast Television in half-term, I was struck by how brief, and low key, was the mention of the loss of life of 17 students and teachers at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Florida, at the hands of an ex-pupil, Nikolas Cruz. It was reported in a way that gave the impression that this wasn’t an event particularly beyond the norm: yet it was the third worst school mass killing in a school in The States and the worst since the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012.
One shouldn’t become sanitised to the horrific impact of such a tragedy. The effect of a massacre of this sort must leave deep and lasting scars within the school concerned and its community.
An interesting article in The National Geographic focuses on the work of a charity, K9, in helping rebuild young lives in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre. K9 arranged for nine golden retrievers to spend some time with children affected by the awful happenings of December 14th 2012.
The head of the charity, Tim Hetzner, spoke about the role the dogs played in enabling young children, who witnessed events at Sandy Hook, to open up about the trauma they had experienced: “A lot of times, kids talk directly to the dog,” he said. “They’re kind of like counsellors with fur. They have excellent listening skills and they demonstrate unconditional love. They don’t judge you or talk back.”
He added some sage advice: “I think that’s a common mistake people make in crisis situations—feeling obligated to give some sort of answer or advice, when, really, those who are hurting just need to express themselves.”
Dogs are not going to give advice: when trained so to do, they will give unreserved comfort. Psychologist, Debbie Custance, of Goldsmiths College, London, states: “Dogs are social creatures that respond to us quite sensitively and they seem to respond to our emotions.” Custance recently led a study to see whether dogs demonstrated empathy. She asked volunteers to either pretend to cry, or just “hum in a weird way.” Would the dogs notice the difference? “The response was extraordinary,” she said. Nearly all of the dogs came over to nuzzle or lick the crying person, whether it was the owner or a stranger, while they paid little attention when people were merely humming.
It was interesting to note that, in the fantastic presentation given by Year 6 BPS pupil, Joseph, he mentioned the role played by Nala, a retriever used to support patients at The Evelina Hospital. Joseph, who has had eight operations at the hospital, recalls how comforting her presence was.
Selkie, Bickley Park’s very own therapy dog, demonstrates many of the traits of a trained therapist. Whilst she is pleased to meet and greet everyone in the morning, she seems to have a particular role to play in providing companionship and comfort to those who may be experiencing sadness, such as bereavement or attachment issues. She will roll over on her back and present her tummy for tickling and might provide a bridge between a sadness being experienced at home and starting a normal school day.
Pupils within a school community have much to gain from the unconditional love available from a dog.
Selkie would like to say happy Year of the Dog to our friends in the Chinese community: