Therapy dog Fergus supporting Wellbeck Academy pupils and helping boost attendance

Katie Cole has been to a primary school in Newcastle to see how therapy dog Fergus is making a difference

A therapy dog is being used in Newcastle to help support schoolchildren with disabilities and special educational needs - and to improve attendance.

One-year-old Fergus is brought into Wellbeck Academy, in Walker, by owner and school counsellor Heather O'Neill.

At a time when 90% of schools have seen a rise of pupils with special educational needs (SEND), Heather told ITV Tyne Tees Fergus was making a difference.

"He's not what is classed as a usual school dog that has the freedom to roam around the corridors," she said.

"Fergus is used specifically in my room as a counselling intervention because dogs have been known to reduce anxiety and to reduce stress."

School counsellor and owner Heather O'Neill says Fergus can support in a range of ways. Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

Some of the school's pupils said Fergus had already worked his magic on them - making them feel happier, being a listening ear and a perfect distraction.

Heather continued: "We do see children who have got special educational needs, so I see children with autism or ADHD, speech and language delay as well, he listens and doesn't give any feedback.

"They can often pour their heart out - I'll see children who've lost a family member, maybe parents have separated and they would come and just offload their worries."

And while Fergus has had a glowing reference from staff and pupils, dog trainer Nicola Maxwell said there was growing wider support for the use of dogs in schools.

Nicola, from Paws Therapy Dog Training, said: "Since covid, with the fall out in terms of society's mental health, and the influx of children that are coming through diagnoses of autism and ADHD, people are recognising that dogs can have a huge impact on those people in terms of supporting them."

Pupils at Wellbeck Academy have given Fergus a glowing reference. Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

Dogs are also being used to improve attendance. Rates have fallen since the pandemic and across the North East one in five pupils are persistently absent.

"We know that since covid a lot of children are struggling to engage in school learning and our dogs can help them to do that," added Nicola.

"Having that friendly, happy face with the waggy tail greet them can just be that little bit of confidence to help them cross over the threshold."

Our canine friends also proven to help with literacy skills.

Heather continued: "To them, there's no criticism, there's no being told it's wrong.

"I think it's just giving a different dimension and a different aspect of helping children and knowing that he makes such a difference to them is really powerful actually."

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know...