Berry Street students benefit from furry new staff member

THE arrival of a furry new staff member at Berry Street School has had an immediate impact on students.

Assistance dog Phoebe, an 18-month-old golden retriever, joined the Berry Street staff last week, fresh after her graduation from Assistance Dogs Australia.

“We’ve seen an immediate improvement in the young people because, first of all, it’s a happier environment with Phoebe around,” said campus head Damian McKee.

“She’s a beautiful dog. The whole point of having a therapy dog is to calm many of the kids who have heightened emotions or anxiety.

“She can detect the emotions of the young people, she goes over and stands next to them and puts a paw on them for a pat.”

The school’s 20 students, aged 13 to 15, have all been affected by trauma in their lives, which has impacted their schooling.

Teacher Samantha Walkenden, who is Phoebe’s primary carer, said even in a week Phoebe had helped change student behaviour.

“A lot of our students don’t really feel safe being in a classroom and some have never made a full lesson. Since Phoebe has been here, even though it’s a short time, they have lasted a whole lesson.”

Teachers and students had also studied ‘dog psychology’ exploring Phoebe’s facial expression and body language to tune in to how she is feeling.

Berry Street's newest teacher, therapy dog Phoebe, enjoys pats with students Alex and Angel, and teacher Samantha Walkenden. Picture: Kate Healy

Berry Street's newest teacher, therapy dog Phoebe, enjoys pats with students Alex and Angel, and teacher Samantha Walkenden. Picture: Kate Healy

Ms Walkenden said that had helped some students learn more about themselves and prompted discussions about emotions.

Obtaining an educational support dog was a high priority for the school, which opened its doors this year.

“It was a priority for us as a staff group to have a therapy dog. It can take up to two years with Assistance Dogs Australia, but we were fortunate in that they contacted us and said if we could turn it around quickly we could have a dog within two  months,” Mr McKee said.

Every assistance dog has specific training to meet the individual needs of their new owner. It can take up to two years and cost more than $30,000 to train an assistance dog, but dogs are provided free to their new owners.

Even so it has cost the Berry Street School about $3000 preparing for Phoebe’s arrival.

Ballarat Petstock has offered to cover many of her future costs, donating food, medication and other necessities for her care.

It’s not all work for Phoebe, with lots of off-duty time to chase a ball and play included in her day.

Outside school hours she lives with Ms Walkenden, who travelled to Sydney and spent a week being trained  with Phoebe before bringing her home to her new life in Ballarat.

At home she’s a regular dog but must abide by some rules such as not jumping up on the couch, which Ms Walkenden admits is hard to police.

Phoebe’s arrival at the Sebastopol school has also brought with it a new regime of rules for students to follow.

“There are really strict guidelines and rules about how Phoebe has to be treated and spoken to,” Mr McKee said.

“We remind all the students they have to be aware of all those rules. She is a gorgeous dog and, when eating, some kids find it really difficult to say no if she wants food, but if all 20 kids gave her a little bit she’d get fat.”

Phoebe’s arrival has also had an added and unexpected benefit for staff.

“It can be a pretty high-stress job and sometimes in debriefing if its tense she’ll go from person to person or do something cute and silly,” Ms Walkenden said.

Phoebe, whose registered name is Phoebe Berry, even has her own instagram account phoebe_learns.