A snuggle with a guinea pig or cuddle with a dog is helping ease return-to-school anxiety for some students.
Near Ballarat therapy dog Honey has been greeting Buninyong Primary School students each morning and helping some settle in to new classroom routines.
And at Emmaus Catholic Primary School five guinea pigs named Stripe, Bandit, Bingo, Muffin and Bluey are expert at calming nerves and encouraging students to engage in a new setting.
The furry therapists belong to Jacqui MacMillan, who describes herself as "head human" at 4 Paws Therapy.
Having worked with golden retriever Honey in schools as Story Dog over the past three years, Ms MacMillan noticed a change in the needs of students and teachers after they returned to the classroom following COVID lockdowns.
"While at school with Honey we helped many more children (and staff) than just those involved in the Story Dogs program. We would often help mop up tears at the school office or sick bay and attract the attention of students who are feeling a little overwhelmed," Ms MacMillan said.
"After the pandemic and children being in lockdown and remote learning ... we just saw increased anxiety in children coming back not sure how long it was going to be for - they'd lost social connection.
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"It made me think that while the Story Dog program is fantastic and provides a lot of confidence to children having trouble reading, we'd love to spend more time with children than the Story Dog program would allow and ... how special it would be to offer extra time and support for not only reading and literacy, but for mental health and wellbeing."
The guinea pig herd help children who might be scared of dogs or of such big animals, or who prefer a smaller animal that can sit on their knee.
The guinea pigs sit in a snuggle sack that children can have on their knees or cuddle to their chest, and children need to be quiet and still so the guinea pigs feel calm and relaxed enough to take a treat from them.
They don't laugh or pass judgement, which results in children experiencing increased confidence and decreased anxiety.- Jacqui MacMillan
"When the guinea pigs come out we tell them they made the guinea pig feel really calm and relaxed so now they feel safe enough to take a treat ... it really gives the children a confidence boost, helps them regulate their emotions and sit calmly."
Ms MacMillan said animals provided a positive, calming effect in the classroom.
"They don't laugh or pass judgement, which results in children experiencing increased confidence and decreased anxiety. The act of petting an animal releases an automatic relaxation response, releasing hormones that can play a part in elevating mood," she said.
Ms MacMillan meets with school staff to set some goals before starting a program.
Sessions may involve working with class groups, in smaller groups with more specific goals, or one-on-one.
"Having fun is the main aim of sessions, but often so much more is achieved. Children relax as they pet the animals, they open up socially, sharing thoughts and feelings with others and with growing confidence they become more open to learning," she said.
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