Dubai school recruits therapy dog to reduce stress in children

Teachers and pupils can play with Lotus, a four-year-old retriever, to reduce anxiety during the pandemic

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A Dubai school has brought in a classroom dog to provide comfort and support to pupils.

Children at Gems Metropole School in Motor City were told a Labrador retriever, Lotus, was the newest staff member on the first day after the winter break.

The playful, fluffy, four-year old dog, comes to the school every Sunday and Thursday when pupils and teachers can cuddle and play with it.

Principal Nav Iqbal said pupils were stressed because of the uncertainties caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

So, they brought in an emotional support dog to improve children’s mental health and well-being.

"The school has recruited the dog as a member of staff. Lotus will volunteer twice a week to support pupils and staff emotionally. It will also help pupils with special needs," he said.

"Lotus will help calm our children and build bonds. He will bring in an element of happiness for the children."

Mr Iqbal said they were working to get the dog to school every day.

Lotus will also help in reducing stress of senior pupils who are due to sit their mock examinations in January.

He will extend his paw for a shake or give hugs to pupils before they take the test.

"We welcome any strategy that can alleviate anxiety,” Mr Iqbal said.

Lotus is a rescue dog adopted by Emay van der Walt, a South African inclusion specialist at the school.

Ms van der Walt rescued the dog two years ago and has trained him to work with children.

"Having Lotus around will help children balance their emotions and calm their anxieties," she said.

"Covid-19 has caused a lot of anxiety, and dogs provide unconditional love and care.

"It’s difficult for adults to cope with constant changes, so certainly it is tough for children to put on brave faces.

"Sometimes someone just needs a cuddle from a dog to lower their anxiety and calm their nerves."

Many universities in the US have "pet your stress away" programmes, where students can come in and interact with cats or dogs to help reduce stress.

According to scientists at Washington State University, such programmes not only improve the mood of students but also have stress-relieving physiological benefits.

Playing with animals can be therapeutic. Ms van der Walt said she tells children to sit with their eyes closed, while Lotus walks around the room and barks. The pupils have to guess where he is in the room and for every correct answer the dog gets a treat or a pat.

"We also play a game of catch with a musical ball. A pupil rolls the ball and Lotus gets it. He throws it back to the child, who has to catch it with his eyes closed," she said.

The activities support sensory stimulation, space-time perception, attention and concentration, Ms van der Walt said.

Avichal Sood, 18, who is in Year 13, was excited to play with Lotus.

"I am really happy to have Lotus at school and I am a dog lover. We have exams coming up, so there is stress. Playing with him does help us calm down," Avichal said.

Shanessa Fernandes, 17, also in Year 13, said children's faces lit up when they saw Lotus.

"I was prepared for a lot of exam and pre-university stress this term," Shanessa said.

"Seeing Lotus was a huge surprise and it has wiped away my stress."