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Meet Ricky – our Courageous Canine

Earlier this year, a gorgeous Guide Dog pup named Ricky came to live in our Boarding community. Our Head of Boarding, Mrs Allysia Heness-Pugh, has a very long and established relationship with Guide Dogs Australia as a ‘Puppy Raiser’. So when Mrs H-P joined Ascham at the start of this year, the School was lucky enough to adopt this relationship too. Below is Mrs H-P’s recent article from our 2021 Ascham community magazine, The Dalton Extra.

‘Meet Ricky—Ascham’s most recent addition to the Health and Wellbeing team in Holmwood House. Ricky is in training to be a service animal for Guide Dogs Australia, and a school is the perfect environment for 12 months of ‘on the job’ training.

The Ascham community has already taken an active interest in Ricky’s adventures and he has taken to his new home with ease and confidence. His affectionate and enthusiastic nature aligns perfectly with the Wellbeing Framework of the School and he has quickly become a pillar of support for our students and staff as a trainee Guide Dog. Ricky lives in Duntrim House and spends a lot of his time socialising with the boarders.

Each year in NSW, as part of the broader Guide Dogs Australia national program, around 150 puppies at eight weeks of age go to live with volunteer families for the first 12 months of their life. As a volunteer ‘Puppy Raiser’ I have the great privilege of being part of an organisation that helps people with vision impairment gain mobility and independence through the training of Guide Dogs, and who provides Therapy Dogs for families and individuals with specific emotional and psychological needs. The Puppy Raiser role involves fostering an adorable Labrador puppy for 12 months, giving them love, socialisation and some training. Every Puppy Raiser is interviewed when applying for the role, and our houses are assessed. We are given obedience training and meet regularly with an advisor to make sure our pups are progressing. An awesome online program called STEP has been designed to ensure we train the pups correctly. Trainers provide excellent support and are always available should we have any questions.

I have been volunteering with Guide Dogs since 2006 and was the first person in Australia approved to have a trainee Guide Dog live in a boarding school when I worked at Abbotsleigh, Wahroonga. Thus a unique partnership with Guide Dogs began. I have now seen hundreds of boarders assist with 15 dogs going through the program.

However, Guide Dogs Australia is about much more than raising Guide Dogs. In addition to their advocacy for vision-impaired people and those who use walking aids such as canes, the organisation provides other service animals such as Therapy Dogs and Court Dogs. These three streams allow for more dogs to be utilised for special purpose as, just like people, dogs have different skills and can sometimes be better suited to one stream over the other. The expectations for becoming a full-service Guide Dog are extremely high and not all dogs are successful in this pursuit.

It’s important to understand the different roles of a Service Dog and a Therapy Dog. A Service Dog, such as a Guide Dog, helps provide equal access for someone with a specific disability (such as vision, hearing or mobility impairment). They are protected by law to be able to work in areas that are usually restricted for animals. Therapy Dogs usually have a less defined role and provide emotional support in a range of settings.

In June, the Association of Independent Schools (AIS) released guidelines for the use of Therapy and Service Dogs in schools. Increasingly over the past few years, and particularly since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, primary and secondary schools across Australia have been recognising the role Therapy Dogs play within wellbeing programs across campus. I can’t tell you how excited I am about this focus. It confirms something I’ve known about animals and adolescents for a long time. It gives renewed weight and legitimacy to my own professional practice in boarding school environments over the last 15 years where I have seen how dogs can be a therapeutic support to students, particularly around self-regulating their emotions.

Since beginning my boarding career, I have had a strong vision to establish opportunities for boarding students to participate in meaningful service. My initial involvement with Guide Dogs Australia was in response to a challenge by a young boarder from the town of Come By Chance in northern NSW. Her simple question of: ‘Why can’t we, as boarders, do this?’ was the fuel I needed. So often, boarders attend schools outside their hometown, which cuts off opportunity for engagement with organisations that provide invaluable services for vulnerable members of their communities. Boarders can sometimes become disconnected from the opportunity to serve, volunteer and give back outside of classroom-based projects because of the constraints of leave and the Boarding routine. In helping raise a Guide Dog, I am able to bring meaningful service learning inside the School gates to the Boarding community. In raising a Guide Dog our Boarding community is unique, as boarders work towards the goal of a graduated Guide Dog. Arguably, the outcome and the process are much more meaningful than having a dog as a pet in the Boarding House.

My passion for service comes from my family and I spent many years volunteering for local organisations as a Girl Guide in my hometown of Bathurst. My parents instilled in me a strong desire to pay it forward, and I live by this daily. I know the boarders see that a small, ambitious act—even that of loving and socialising a puppy—can bring about great change for those who need it. It is not an exaggeration to say that through this program our boarders change lives, as the work that a Guide Dog does for someone with vision impairment is phenomenal. Having a Guide Dog allows for people with a disability to gain independence and equality. It is honour to play a small part along that journey.

Guide Dog puppies living with families learn invaluable socialisation skills and this is easily transferred to a Boarding setting. Service animals need to be confident, adaptive and robust to handle any situation. Potential Guide Dogs in the Boarding House are exposed to a variety of personalities, noise and general merriment. Socialisation is an essential component of training for young pups and there is no better place than the hustle and bustle of a busy Boarding House. Dogs get used to a variety of people and experiences that they may not necessarily find within a traditional family home situation. While other dogs are often scared of crowds or screaming, dogs that have lived in a Boarding House are unfazed and Guide Dog trainers have been impressed with their resilience. Guide Dogs Australia has been extremely supportive of our ability to raise a Guide Dog pup in a community setting, in contrast to a traditional family setting. The outcomes of confidence and resilience we achieve are quite apparent and allow our pups to be considered for a variety of roles.

Having a Service Dog training in a Boarding House is not just about facilitating service-learning opportunities. When I was a boarder, I missed my animals more than my family and I know this is still the same for many in our community. The symbiotic relationship that a Guide Dog pup brings to boarders is invaluable. A dog, as a part of normal home life, has real tangible benefits for when girls need some time out and an opportunity to walk the dog, a distraction when homesick or simply a friend (albeit with four legs) to talk to. While Boarding School can never replace home, a simple part of family life can help make our School as homely as possible. We are seeing the benefits beyond the Boarding House as well.

Ricky is able to connect with girls who may need emotional support and time away from the classroom. He is already supporting our School Counsellors and Head of Wellbeing in promoting a positive and welcoming atmosphere in Holmwood. His presence helps improve rapport between students and staff, creating a positive connotation about visits to the Health and Wellbeing Centre. Ricky has formed strong connections with some students who take him for walks regularly and assist in his obedience training. He also enjoys the company of various staff throughout School, attending meetings and going for walks.

Put simply, Ricky’s presence around campus brings joy and we can always do with a bit more of that!’

Image: Allysia Heness-Pugh with Ricky



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