Increasingly independent schools are discovering the benefits, both academic and pastoral, of having animals on site. For instance there are now more than 100 school farms in the UK, but schools don’t need to keep animals on a grand scale to reap the benefits. At Cheltenham College the majority of the boarding houses are home to a furry four-legged friend as pupils and staff realise the great benefits of having boarding house dogs and cats.
Educational psychologist Alan McLean said: “Children have incredibly pressured lives these days and animals are a fantastic de-stressor. There’s nothing worse for a child’s wellbeing and learning than if they’re stressed, due to the physical effects of the stress hormone cortisol on the development of the cortex. If they have a tactile relationship with animals on a regular basis and over a long period of time, it’s very good for the brain’s neurotransmitters.”
There are 11 dogs in residence at Cheltenham College. Ashmead has two Cavapoo's called ‘Apple’ and ‘Monty’ (Apple has just had a litter of six!) and a Spaniel called ‘Alfie’, who is owned by the Assistant Housemistress. Two Labradors called ‘Tess’ and ‘Evie’ and a Jack Russell called ‘Doni’, reside at Westal; a golden Labrador named ‘Willow’ lives at Leconfield, while a black Labrador name ‘Hebe’ is at Hazelwell and finally a Cocker Spaniel called ‘Lola’ and a Labrador cross called ‘Honey’, live at Chandos. Not forgetting of course ‘Noodle’ a miniature dachshund in Boyne House! As well as a few cats too!
Senior Housemistress at Cheltenham College, Mrs Anna Cutts said: “I resisted, despite pressure from the girls in the House, of having a dog for several years and I think I hugely under-estimated their importance not only in our lives but in the wider context of the Boarding House. Life can be stressful at times and it is easy for the girls to become immersed in their immediate issues and allow their perspective to become skewed, dogs are great levelers. They have no agenda but just enjoy companionship.
“A few minutes chucking a ball around and playing fetch, or chasing them manically around the sofas in the common room, is a great distraction and the mood immediately lifts. Alternatively having one of the dogs cuddle up near you if you are feeling a bit low or homesick brings a sense of calm and homeliness that is really important. My dogs are desperate to see the girls each day and before House assembly are waiting at the door to be taken around to see them. They are also quite protective of them and any ‘male’ who comes in gets barked at!
“I find it reassuring hearing the girls talking to the dogs sometimes and they are often the first thing they greet when they come back to House. At present we have six puppies so there is a constant trail of girls in and out of our kitchen: they are going to be the most socialized dogs in the world after the endless cuddles they are receiving! My dogs, and those that reside in the other boarding houses, have become very much part of students’ lives and are vital in making the House more of a home for them.”
Dogs living within boarding schools in the UK have also quickly become social media stars as the Boarding Schools Association’s hashtag, #boardinghousedogs, encourages schools to share adorable photos and fun facts about the pets who are helping to create a family environment for boarders, a vital component of the experience that pupils enjoy during their time at Cheltenham College.