In what is perhaps the first of its kind in Australia, Goodstart Traralgon has enlisted the services of Lilly, a Bernese Mountain dog, who will eventually be at the centre full time helping children with loneliness, separation anxiety, depression, social skills and learning to read.
Lilly will be trained in Melbourne in October as an official therapy dog, receiving her accreditation. Until then, the 15-month-old dog will spend about an hour in the centre, getting ready for her full time position.
Traralgon centre director Nathan Brown has been working towards having Lilly in the centre for a number of years.
“I have always been a massive supporter of therapy dogs, and Lilly is a puppy from two of the most awarded show and breeding dogs in Australia,” Mr Brown said. “While we had to wait for her for two years, it’s been worth it and now I’m really looking forward to seeing the results of her work in the centre.”
Lilly’s breed of dog is known as the “hugging dog” in Europe, particularly in Finland, where they are often used as therapy dogs for children with identified reading difficulties.
Research shows therapy dogs can reduce stress physiologically and increase attachment responses that trigger oxytocin – a hormone that increases trust in humans. Therapy dogs have been shown to teach empathy and social skills, reduce anxiety in children, be soothing and increase motivation for learning.
“Children can practice reading to Lilly because she’s non-threatening and non-judgemental which allows the children to overcome any issues they may have,” Mr Brown said.
“Lilly will also be great at calming children, easing loneliness and encouraging them to socialise with others while at the centre.”
During the next few months Lilly will spend about an hour a day at the centre getting used to smells and noises, and educators will talk to the children about taking care of her and staying safe.
She will slowly build up her hours and gain access to the rooms and be introduced to the children.
“Eventually Lilly will work the same hours as myself and will be able to walk around the centre and have regular breaks.”
She will not be allowed in the bathrooms or kitchen, and has been fully immunised. She has been trained to retreat to Mr Brown’s office if she needs time out.
Mr Brown said the response from children and parents at the centre had been amazing.
“Our families are over the moon and we’ve had more children come to us just for this reason. We’ve had her for two weeks so far and our bookings are up because of the program. I really look forward to seeing the progress our children make with Lilly at the centre,” he said.