FEW PEOPLE would have thought that the diminutive Henry Fanshawe Smart would be the rising star of Dronfield Comprehensive, in the small town near Sheffield. In fact, Henry has appeared on television in the UK and abroad. He even has his own wall of fame at Dronfield, a photo tribute to his unexpected rise to celebrity status. But hes not a pupil; hes a classroom assistant but not a human classroom assistant. Henry is, in fact, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.
The Dronfield pupils say that Henry is their best friend. Their teachers even sing Henrys praises, saying that since he bounded into Dronfield, six months ago, the feisty little dog has improved pupil behaviour, attendance records and academic achievement.
Fifteen year-old Andrew Wainwright is a typical Henry fan: "I find it difficult to concentrate sometimes," explains Andrew. "So I take time out of mainstream class three or four times a week to catch up on work and Henry is always in the room I go to."
Andrew says Henry is a calming influence. He cant put his finger on it but says theres something magical about being able to throw Henry a soft toy or have Henry pad up and lick his hand while he is studying. "I just really like him to be around," he says. "He helps my concentration. Henry makes me want to do my work so Miss Brown will let me look after him or feed him treats. Everyone wants to walk Henry."
Brown is Andrews teacher. It was Miss Brown and Julie
Smart, the school counsellor, who first floated the idea
of buying a school dog. Wendy freely admits that initially
other staff members thought the suggestion was questionable,
to say the least.
"Julie and I grew up with dogs and we were talking one day about how looking after dogs can affect childrens behaviour," says Wendy. "We did some research and discovered that the presence of pets has been shown to be therapeutic. Animals improve recovery in hospitals and have a calming influence on people in lots of settings. Some of my kids can be a handful and some of the children Julie counsels have terrific problems. We thought a dog might help."
The two teachers could have plucked a dog from a rescue centre but felt that those dogs were more likely to have difficulties. What they and what troubled children needed was a stable, intelligent, people-loving dog with a proven personality.
Henry was duly purchased for £450 from Chesterfield breeder Mrs S Wright of Lehdansa Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. He was named after both the schools founder and Julie Smart who looks after him out of school hours. This latter information has calmed the animal lovers who complained to the school about Henrys treatment. "They seemed to think we locked him in a school cupboard overnight," chuckles Wendy.
Henry actually leads quite a life of luxury. Local churches donated the funds to buy him and his food his penchant is for sardines and equipment is taken care of by sponsorship. The school budget was too tight to buy a dog and putting one before books might have proved controversial.
Docile, affectionate Henry is on Dronfields front line when it comes to helping children struggling with everything from attention deficit disorder to parental neglect or a sudden death in the family. In the next few weeks, the dog will launch his own confidential counselling website, called Ask Henry. Pupils will be encouraged to log in with problems and Julie Smart will answer on Henrys behalf. A bit of a naff notion for teenagers? Apparently nothing is naff when Henry is involved. The dog is so cool hes chilled.
"Henry has been a massive success," Wendy Brown told OUR DOGS, explaining that even doubting staff have been won round. Perhaps that is because Henry, who lies on the floor during staff meetings, has also had a calming effect on teachers. "Hes featured in local and national news, on TV and he takes it all in his stride. Cavaliers are ideal family dogs and I think thats why the kids respond to him so well."
Could the school dog become a craze? Possibly. Eight schools keen to get their own school dog have already contacted Wendy for advice.
Other schools such as the Mulberry Bush, a residential primary school for 36 children with emotional and behavioural problems in Oxfordshire, have already discovered the delights of a school dog.
Rosie Johnston, a Mulberry staff member, first brought her Golden Retriever, Muskoka, into school when he was just nine weeks old. That was three years ago. Muskoka is both a reward for good behaviour and fine work children are selected to walk him and a calming influence.
Muskoka even plays his part in literacy lessons. Children at the Mulberry Bush can be too shy to read to adults. So they read to Muskoka. "They are less worried about making mistakes when they read to him," says Rosie.
Psychologist Dr Deborah Wells from Queens University, Belfast specialises in animal-human interaction and is not at all surprised about the claims made for Henry or Muskoka. She believes the key to the Henry effect is that dogs offer humans unconditional love. And that cheers up adults and children.
"Studies have shown that when parents divorce, children can really benefit from having a pet in their life," says Wells. "It is great to know the dog still loves you when it seems nobody else does. It helps self-esteem. It makes children feel better about themselves."
Officialdom is not so sure though. Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector of schools, says that in the 3,000-or-so schools he visited, he encountered his fair share of gerbils and rabbits, but he never came across a dog.
"I can see how children with emotional or behavioural difficulties might be helped but Im sceptical about the use of dogs in the mainstream," says Mr Woodhead. "I dont see why a teacher cannot create a positive learning environment through the subject they teach and their personality. Dogs seem a bit of a gimmick."
Meanwhile, Henrys celebrity continues, and any attempts by officials or do-gooders to remove the friendly dog from the classroom will be met with official union action. Henry has just become the first animal to be made an honorary member of the public services union Unison in recognition of his services as a canine classroom assistant.