A loved animal’s contribution to the wellbeing of the children and adults in a setting is immeasurable, says Andi Turner…
It was while I was writing my batch of two-year-old progress checks before the Christmas break that I noticed just how much the children interact with my dog, Loki.
And actually, how Loki is far better behaved than I ever give him credit for.
Granted he robs them of their apple slices and carrot batons if they don’t get their hands in the air quick enough between nibbles but apart from that, he’s pretty good.
Notwithstanding thorough hygiene and safety measures, Loki does still bring something very special to the setting, something I don’t think anybody or anything else could.
He’s there for the fun times and he’s there for the snuggle times.
The children have learned when to tell him to chill when it all gets a bit too crazy and they know when he’s been a good boy and deserves a little treat.
Sometimes it’s a munchy treat and sometimes it’s a good old rub behind his ears. They know that too many munchies aren’t good for him but that you can never give too much love, and Loki’s perfectly happy with either.
They recognise when he’s tired and they leave him be, and when he had an operation, they understood what it meant to miss him while he was away and to be extra gentle and not get him too excited while his stitches healed.
They’ve learned that when he stops playing, lays down and pants, he needs a drink of water.
The arrangement is mutually beneficial because although he’ll take every opportunity to pinch their snacks or chew their toys, he knows each of them well enough to realise when a child is frustrated or tired and that they really need him: so he sits beside them, positions his muzzle beneath a hand, and tilts his head back so that their hand slides over his head and down his neck.
He does this repeatedly until the child begins stroking him voluntarily and he remains there until the child is settled. This is unconditional love and something every living thing deserves, and it is very special to watch.
Every child enjoys their own special relationship with Loki and he treats each of them as individually as they treat him.
For instance, there’s a toddler who likes to sit face-to-face with him and point up his ears so he looks like a bat.
Then there’s the little boy who enjoys curling the end of Loki’s tail around his fingers when he’s going off to sleep.
You might think nothing of it, only Loki doesn’t usually like his tail being touched at all. Another tirelessly tries to get Loki to say please and thank you – and I don’t mean sitting and begging or giving his paw, I mean, she tries to get him to say please and thank you.
She’s the patience of a saint that one: she’s seen a video of a dog that says “I love you” to his owner so she knows it’s doable.
And Loki has learned to close his eyes when the baby points her chubby fingers at his face and lifts his head up and away. And he won’t sit beside another toddler because he always grabs at his fur and yet he’ll happily fetch and return a ball to him when he throws one across the floor.
It’s a real pity that more settings don’t have a dog, even if just for occasional visits, for their contribution to the wellbeing of the children and the adults is immeasurable – and that’s before you even consider the walks in the woods and the fresh air you can enjoy together at the seaside.
Increasingly, though, schools, care homes, hospices and hospitals are using volunteer therapy pets to spread comfort and joy and companionship, and so ask yourself, is this something that could enhance your provision?
Andi Turner is an outstanding early years practitioner, mentor and blogger.