Paw Pals

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Paw Pals is a dog assisted education program that has been created by MacKillop Education Services for students who are currently disengaged or at risk of disengaging from education. It is helping children to develop the emotional regulation, self-awareness, confidence and social skills they need to be able to learn.

The program was established in 2018 after a need for alternative methods for engaging with disadvantaged and disengaged students was identified. MacKillop Education provided the initial funding to establish the program which is now funded by public donations. There are four dogs in the program who have been sourced from a variety of backgrounds. All dogs undergo a training and accreditation process.

Interaction with animals can provide a strong sense of trust and companionship. And the experience of being with an animal can divert attention away from a stressful situations and encourage students to focus on more positive experiences. This dynamic can open up a powerful avenue for both learning and healing. A bond with an animal also promotes self-worth, self-esteem, and a sense of belonging.

Paw Pals is a planned and structured student intervention with specific academic and educational goals that are achieved by developing a bond with a dog through interaction and play. The program focuses on building student engagement and confidence through animal assisted activities and individualised learning sessions working alongside trained therapy dogs and program facilitators.

For example, under the instruction of a program leader, a student might work with a dog to teach it how to open a door or access a ramp. The exercise may involve working as part of a team with the instructor to translate complex instructions into commands that can be understood by the dog. It requires persistence, patience and emotional intelligence to interpret the behaviour of the dog.

Successfully training the dog to do a new task can provide a strong sense of achievement and can be very rewarding. As part of the program, students might also integrate broader educational goals by writing a story about the dog or reading to the dog.

Due to its flexible and customizable nature, Paw Pals is suitable for a wide range of children including those with attachment disorders, autism spectrum disorder and those that struggle with social and emotional regulation. It can also be effective for children who would benefit from the emotional support an animal can offer.

The Paw Pals program is currently offered to:

  • children who are unable to live with their birth families and are looked after by foster carers or staff in residential care homes
  • students at the MacKillop Education school in Maidstone and Caulfield
  • children in mainstream schools who have been excluded from the classroom because of behaviours that can't currently be managed.

Animal-assisted therapy can take place in almost any setting that best suits the student’s needs, including schools and residential homes. However, it is more involved than just spending time with an animal and includes a structured set of goals as determined by an experienced professional.

Students can be referred by their school, family, case manager or Child Protection worker. Currently Paw Pals is only offered in western Melbourne. To obtain a referral form, please complete an expression of interest form which is available here.