From education to employment

Therapy dog goes to college to make life brighter for students with learning difficulties at St Vincent

Miniature labradoodle Finn the trainee therapy service dog with his owner Kerrie Jacobs, a teacher at St Vincent College’s School of Personalised Learning

FINN the therapy dog is helping St Vincent College students with learning and emotional difficulties express their feelings and cope with anxiety.

The nine-month-old miniature labradoodle belongs to SEN teacher Kerrie Jacobs and goes into the Gosport college’s School of Personalised Learning (SPL) every Wednesday to spend the day with students.

Mrs Jacobs, who works with girls with emotional and social support needs, said: “He might sit on their lap and while they are stroking him. They will open up to you about something that’s happened or something they didn’t previously want to talk about because they are stroking Finn and forget about their environment.”

He is not only making life in the classroom better for students, he is also helping Mrs Jacobs get over the loss of much-loved family dog Pirate last year.

“We had Pirate, a Parsons Russell terrier, for almost 18 years and we were devastated when he passed away,” she said.

Pirate was a rehomed dog and the family wanted to give another rescue dog a home but stricter rules around rehoming meant they couldn’t. “With me working full-time and not having a big garden with a high fence, we just didn’t tick enough boxes,” she said.

“But I still wanted to give something back to the community in a different way so I decided to look into the possibility of training a therapy dog.”

She had brought in a therapy dog into the college before the pandemic and seen the positive effect it had on students so she researched appropriate breeds.

“Finn is perfect because he’s a cross between a poodle and a labrador,” she said. “His breed is small, cute and cuddly and poodles are very intelligent while labradors are very placid and easy going. He also doesn’t shed his fur so is less likely to trigger allergies.”

When Finn comes in everyone is pleased to see him and everyone asks when he is coming back

Finn has begun PAWS therapy service dog training and is assessed regularly. “He knows how to heel, sit and stay so I can him around the college and be safe and secure,” said Mrs Jacobs.

“I’m learning how to read his body language so I can understand if he is not happy or getting too excited and do something about it to keep him content.”

She said all of the SPL students have taken to Finn. “When Finn comes in everyone is pleased to see him and everyone asks when he is coming back,” she said. “The other teachers say it’s all their students are talking about so it is a really positive impact on everyone.”

He has already made a huge difference to one student who was anxious about walking around the college.  “We invited him in to walk Finn and because I have a double lead he was able to take took one of the leads and walk Finn around the college,” said Mrs Jacobs. “His face said it all, he was so proud.”

Finn now has his own Instagram account (@therapy_finn) and many of the students are following him. “It’s just another way of them interacting and socialising. It’s something they can relate that makes them feel part of something,” Mrs Jacobs said.

Once he is fully qualified Mrs Jacobs would like to take Finn into care homes, hospices and hospitals. “We’ll see how he progresses, we don’t want to rush him,” she said.

“Out of a sad situation in losing my dog something positive has come out of it and given me something to focus on. Who doesn’t want to take their dog to work with them? It’s a win win for me.”

Find out more about the work of St Vincvent’s School of Personalised Learning here.

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