It is not just for fun. Oliver is trained to help people, especially those with anxiety. When Oliver arrives at school, Ms Karbowiak says she sees a general increase in happiness in the staffroom and with the kids.
“The kids love seeing Ollie,” she said. “There is a great reduction in anxiety.”
Beyond the Gates is a collaboration between St Mary’s Catholic College, Gateshead, and CatholicCare Social Services Hunter-Manning. It aims to work with families and students in their homes and communities to improve student wellbeing. The school currently provides a number of internal supports that meet the needs of many of the students. However, staff identified students falling between the cracks of current systems, particularly when they step beyond the school gates.
Oliver is an important part of that program, and visits the school three days a week.
Assistant Principal-Wellbeing at St Mary’s Catholic College, Gateshead, Peter Antcliff, raves about the benefits of the program. “Since Lucy began working with us we have been able to greatly improve the wellbeing services that we can offer our community, having Ollie here as well adds an entirely new dimension to the care we extend to our students” he said.
Therapy dogs in schools have been shown to reduce anxiety, increase confidence, and even improve reading skills in school students, according to a 2014 study at James Cook University. “Findings from this study support the benefits of dog-assisted programs to motivate students and improve their reading, confidence and self-esteem,” it said.
Having a non-judgmental and comforting presence in the classroom provides numerous benefits.
Mr Antcliff has also noticed the difference. “Watching the students with Ollie, you can see the immediate positive effect he has on them. There are instant smiles and it is easy to see the anxiety in some of our students melt away,” he said.
Oliver’s positive impact on students is especially clear on exam days.
“We went to visit Year 12 on the day of their first English exam,” Ms Karbowiak said. “There was a young girl who was about to go into her exam who was visibly shaking, she was really anxious. She had her head down in her books trying to get that last bit of study in. She spent a bit of time patting Ollie and she might have still been anxious when we left, but the visible shaking had stopped, which was fascinating to see. She started talking about dogs versus the English exam that she was about to go into.”
Ms Karbowiak previously spent two years visiting aged-care homes with therapy dogs before beginning work with Beyond the Gates. After seeing the positive impact on residents she knew she wanted to involve Oliver in the Beyond the Gates program from the beginning.
“I got Ollie to do this work, as I knew this was where I would go with my psychology degree,” she said. “I trained Ollie to accept handling and be really comfortable around people. Outside of work he competes in obedience and is bit of a sporting star.”
So far there have been no negative reactions from Oliver’s visits. The school sends information home about Oliver to avoid any issues involving dog allergies or phobias in the students.
In the future, Ms Karbowiak would like to increase Oliver’s interactions by “integrating him into the school community more, and making him someone that everyone can access”.
“I would like to visit everyone’s classes and if there are exams on, bring Ollie into that exam room to bring down stress,” she said.