A college in the South Wales Valleys has introduced a pet therapy initiative as a new way to further help re-engage learners who might otherwise be at risk of leaving education.

The scheme will see Coleg y Cymoedd working with Time to Change Wales, the first national campaign to end the stigma and discrimination faced by people with mental health problems. The goal is to support learners who might potentially be at risk of becoming disengaged with education, training opportunities and future employment.

Pet therapy sessions will become an extension of the college’s existing pastoral care provision. As one of south Wales’ largest further education providers, college teams are ever vigilant for signs that learners may need additional support and were keen to explore new ways to help those who may be affected with challenges, such as anxiety.

The sessions will see Time to Change Wales volunteer, Alexandra Osborne, attend the college’s Nantgarw, Aberdare, Rhondda and Ystrad Mynach campuses on a monthly basis with her doggy therapist, Dora.

Alex began providing pet therapy ten years ago with her border collie, Isla. As a child Alex spent a lot of time in hospital and always missed her dog. Years later she heard about the benefits provided by therapy dogs and decided to train Isla to become one. She began taking Isla to colleges and universities to visit young people with autism and non-verbal learners and was amazed to witness that many people, who were generally non-verbal, would speak to Isla.

Following a talk Alex delivered at Coleg y Cymoedd about the Time for Change campaign and how her dog had helped her personally, the college asked if she would like to run some sessions with learners. Alex will now run sessions with her new Jack Russell, Dora, who took over as a four-legged therapist, through pets as therapy, when Alex’s border collie, Isla, retired for a well-earned rest.

Talking about her personal journey and experiences working with therapy dogs, Alex, who also works as an information officer for Newport-based charity, MIND, explained:

“I find the scheme really rewarding. I know first-hand what it’s like to suffer with issues with mental health and also know just how beneficial therapy dogs can be. My dogs have helped me immensely over the years with my own mental health, so I wanted to help others in the same position. Dogs have an amazingly calming effect – just stroking a dog can bring your blood pressure down.

“It’s amazing to see how the visits are helping the learners. If it means someone stays in college because of Dora, it’s definitely worth it.”

The half hour sessions at the college allow the learners to sit with Dora, cuddle her and relax. For learners who feel stressed or suffer with anxiety, just half an hour with Dora helps to calm them and make them feel much better.

Alex has found that time with Dora during the sessions encourages learners to open up about how they are feeling, giving Alex the opportunity to share her own experiences while sign-posting them to where they can get help.

Commenting on the introduction of pet therapy, Coleg y Cymoedd Principal, Karen Phillips, said:

“Our mission is to ensure that every learner has the opportunity to access the very best education to enable them to be successful and progress to university, work or an apprenticeship. Providing the highest level of pastoral care for all learners is a key part of this. 

“This includes excellent academic support through an extensive personal tutorial programme, mentoring programmes, educational visits and guest speakers. But, of equal importance is the wellbeing of our learners and the work of our expert learner support teams, who look after the physical and emotional health of learners.

“The introduction of pet therapy on campus is just the latest step we are taking to support our learners to ensure they are able to succeed in accessing the education, training and employment opportunities available to them here.”