Therapy Dogs in our Schools – A Very Good News Story

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 9 May 2024
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered: Disability Support Dogs, Autism Anchor Assistance Dogs, Autism Companion Dogs

BBC N Ireland recently brought us the story of Caleb White, a 16-year-old pupil from Harberton Special School in Belfast who has a number of complex special needs, including autism, ADHD and OCD. He hiked up Divis and Black Mountain in one day to raise the £7,000 needed to pay for a new mental health support dog for his school.

NI pupil's hike funds new therapy dog for school - BBC News

To find out more about this inspiring story and why Caleb felt he wanted to do this, I contacted Castle Tower Special School in Ballymena near where I live, who also use Assistance Dogs. I was warmly welcomed there by Principal Alick Ford and Vice Principal Chris Murphy and immediately introduced to their therapy dogs, Nico and Percy. It quickly became apparent that the dogs are an integral part of the school community and that their specialist training allows them to be a calm supportive presence, which was evident as we walked through the corridors with them and met pupils and staff.

The dogs are provided to the schools by Assistance Dogs Northern Ireland (ADNI) which is a charity founded by Geraldine McGaughey while she was working full-time as a specialist Autism Spectrum Disorder Social Worker. ADNI was formally constituted on the 25th January 2011. Currently they have 16 full-time School Assistance/Therapy Dogs and 12 ADNI pups in training, 10 of which have been allocated to schools here. ADNI does not receive government funding but relies on donations and fundraising to train and provide these assistance dogs for families and schools. In 2018 ADNI was awarded the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Services. They are the first Assistance Dog organisation in the UK to receive this MBE for the voluntary sector. They operate with only 3 full-time workers and a dedicated group of foster carers who, like the staff I met in Castle Tower school, look after the dogs in their own homes when they are not working in school.

The dogs are trained either as Autism Anchor Assistance Dogs, Autism Companion Dogs, or as Disability Assistance Dogs. In the case of the first, the dogs are trained for 12 months to be with ASD children who have a tendency to ‘run off’.  This transforms lives and allows parents of severely autistic children to go out and have the normal family time that most of us take for granted. The child is linked to the dog with a safety lead coming from a backpack they wear which is attached to the dog. When the dog is wearing this harness, it is trained to be in “work mode” and it will sit or lie down should the child try to run off, which can actually save a child’s life. Autism Companion Assistance Dogs are also trained for children who do not need to be attached to the dog but who struggle with acute anxiety in situations and for whom the dog is a calming, regulating influence. These too can transform the day-to-day life of families. Disability Assistance Dogs are trained to meet the specific needs of full-time wheelchair users. The dogs can be trained to open and close doors, turn on and off light switches, load and unload the washing machine, and retrieve named items like letters, keys, and television remote controls. Disability Assistance Dogs training takes between 12 to 16 months. As you can imagine the demand for the dogs is huge.

In 2016, ADNI received funding from the Big Lottery for 5 years with the aim of providing 75 Assistance Dogs. Nine months into year one of the Big Lottery funding ADNI had to close their waiting lists and there is a 4-year waiting time for one of the life-changing dogs. ADNI currently supports 40 families with Autism Assistance dogs and 3 families with Disability Assistance Dogs.

In 2020/21 ADNI set up a Canine Intervention Programme providing Assistance Dog visits in schools and Trust facilities. Since September 2020 ADNI has provided 1164 visits and 2081 hours of canine intervention.

Contact Assistance Dogs NI | Disability Support Dogs for Children in NI (

I am really indebted to the Principal and Vice Principal of Castle Tower School for allowing me so much of their time to really appreciate how the dogs operate in a school setting. I marvelled at their personal dedication and commitment and how they have got the therapy dogs scheme working in the school. The dogs make a significant difference to the ability of staff to support and help the children with various needs. Simple things like meeting a child off the bus and walking them to class become a pleasure rather than a major, traumatic struggle. For a child with special needs transitioning from the bus journey to being at school can be very difficult. Equally, when in high anxiety mode a child can struggle to relate to other people, who with the best of intentions unconsciously look for interaction from a child in distress. The assistance dogs are silent, calm and always an undemanding, consistent, supportive presence. A meeting with one of the dogs can be built into a child’s daily routine as a reward/ reassurance, enabling tasks to be completed without fuss or stress. The children tap into the energy and presence of the dog in a remarkable way. All of this reduces staff time demands and stress too and has the potential to de-escalate potentially difficult incidents which can cause serious problems for both children and staff.

Sadly we have become overloaded and somewhat immune to media reports and discussions about the budget crisis in Stormont and the grim reality that we seem unable to fund and organise our public services as they need to be. If we are to prioritise some things rather than others, then surely, we should put ourselves in the shoes of families and children who find getting through a normal day so challenging and whose experience can be changed completely by the work of Assistance Dogs NI and their dedicated foster team. It must be possible to provide funding for this work and not have to rely on Caleb climbing Divis Mountain to have our schools the way they should be. Congratulations Caleb for showing us all what we should be striving for.

This article is correct at 09/05/2024

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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