Paws for thought: Working with Josh

Who is Josh?

He’s a six year old Labrador with a very calm temperament. He loves to be outside, especially if that means he can run across grass and fields, and really enjoys having a good sniff of every plant he passes. Josh is also Seashell’s most popular member of staff and a former guide dog who joined Royal College Manchester earlier this year through the charity Guide Dog’s buddy dog programme.

So he’s a guide dog?

He used to be but he isn't any more. Josh went through the training and has several years’ experience working as a guide dog but decided to change careers. As a buddy dog, he is no longer classed as an ‘assistance dog’ which means that he does not have the statutory right to enter public places like shops, restaurants, libraries etc.

Why get a buddy dog?

The college team made the decision to apply after seeing how the buddy dog scheme had been successful in another specialist college. They believed that working with a dog would help students to develop their communication and interaction skills, would motivate them to go on walks and engage in physical activity, and would help students to develop their confidence and self-esteem.

So what are the benefits for students?

Some students from our Sensory course will notice his presence, smile and reach out to stroke him as he walks closer. Spending time with Josh can help young people feel less isolated and give them the confidence to take the lead in interacting with others. Some students are motivated to plan parts of their daily routines around him - Josh can often be seen accompanying students out of the college at the end of the day, and some are taking responsibility for walking Josh to the next session on his timetable, making sure food and water are available and taking Josh outside. One young man now takes Josh with him when he walks to the local library, and by focusing on Josh, he has managed to halve his previous journey time!

Another young man, Kyle, really enjoys noisemaker toys – the louder the better – and would often try to use them during lessons. Understanding that the loud noises would frighten Josh helped Kyle to start leaving his toys alone in class sessions, and he was even heard to shush his teacher when he thought that she was being too noisy. It’s a great step for Kyle’s ability to concentrate on learning as well as giving him an opportunity to weigh up what he's interested in against what Josh needs to be comfortable.

What about the benefits in terms of their learning?

The educational benefits depend on the student. For example, many young people on the Sensory course develop skills like attention by noticing Josh’s presence and focusing on him, anticipation as he comes closer and they reach out to stroke him, and interaction skills. When one young woman first met Josh, she lay on the floor with him and laughed delightedly to feel his tail wagging. Another young woman is demonstrating great awareness of her emotions by realising when she feels too excited to be around Josh and needs to talk a break to refocus and then re-join the group – and by taking these steps to manage her emotions appropriately, she’s now in a better position to stay with Josh for longer periods of time!

We work hard to make progression into employment a reality for as many young people as possible, and our animal care programme has played a big part in developing work skills. Students take responsibility for cleaning and caring for a number of small animals and now help care for Josh, and caring for him teaches students valuable independent skills like cleaning up, social skills and communication as they practice giving Josh instructions like ‘sit’ or ‘lie down’ or make comments to staff and other students about Josh.

And the dog?

For Josh, the benefits are that he gets to spend time with a lot of people who really enjoy looking after him. He's used to being around people all day and is never alone when he wants a bit of attention. There’s a lot of variety in his activities, so he might spend some time sitting with students and being stroked, walking out and about in the community, greeting students in one of the class rooms, playing games or taking a gentle stroll in the sensory garden.

Does he work with every student? My son/daughter is anxious around dogs.

No. We want this to be a good experience for both Josh and the students, so we plan his timetable carefully – Josh even has office hours, which he likes to spend napping in a sunny spot by the window, so that he can recharge his batteries! He only works with students who will work well with him, although the others may still see him around the site from time to time.

How often does he work with students?

Josh comes to work every day (and goes home with a member of staff, so he can occasionally be spotted in the offices or in meetings after the end of the college day) and spends time with some students individually or in small groups. The time he spends with each student depends on things like their reaction to dogs, planned activities, the rest of Josh’s timetable, their learning goals and how they feel on the day.

Can my son/daughter give him a treat?

We bring Josh’s food for exactly that reason, and he would be delighted to receive some! Staff will support students who want to give Josh some of his own food but we ask that you please don't send in any treats or other food from home.