Pats and belly rubs at Wodonga Belvoir Special School as wellbeing dog Nara finds her paws

Nara the 10-month-old groodle may be a calming influence on students at Belvoir Special School, but the puppy has a lot to learn too as she settles into life as a wellbeing dog.

Nara started during March at the Wodonga school in north-east Victoria, where she supports students with intellectual disabilities in the classroom by helping them manage and self-regulate their emotions.

Leading teacher of wellbeing and inclusion Andrew Dear said Nara had only been at the school for a few months but was already having a positive impact on students.

“As a school, we have put a lot of emphasis on our students to regulate their emotions,” he said.

“To see students ask for Nara to help support them to regulate is really positive.”

Nara sits on her mat in the classroom and, when given the “okay”, roams between students for a pat or a belly rub.

Mr Dear said students were happy to support Nara’s learning process as she became used to the school environment.

“Nara calms the students down, but the students are regulating their own emotions themselves as they know they need to keep Nara calm while she is learning her job,” he said.

“It has been massive, the calming influence Nara has already had, in many ways.”

Giving Nara learning space
School captain Angel Hawkins enjoyed watching the students give Nara her learning space.

“We love having her in the classroom, but we know we must give her room to learn rules,” she said.

“I do love how everyone has respect for that.”

Angel said she had witnessed Nara support students of various ages.

“It is good to see a kid with anxiety or something like that have Nara next to them to get rid of that nervous feeling,” she said.

“By being there she is giving them something to do other than focusing on something [they are worried about] that is so scary.”

Integrating wellbeing dogs
Nara is from Dogs Connect, a mental health and wellness program that helps schools and workplaces integrate wellbeing dogs into their communities.

Founder Grant Shannon said Nara’s role was to connect, interact and be present in classrooms, and was happy to hear that Belvoir students were supporting the dog’s own needs.

“Her role is to be relaxed and to then be intuitive and to find people who might need an extra moment of brightness in their day and offer that,” he said.

“Connection with a dog like Nara allows us to change our state of being quite easily from being not okay, to then being more able to engage, focus, learn and communicate.”

Mr Shannon said Nara had a learning plan structured around behavioural routines, patterns, and familiarisation.

“Nara’s learning is ongoing and she will connect more with people and places in the school over time,” he said.

Mr Dear said the school would build up capacity for students to take on more responsibility for Nara, who is currently at the school three days a week but will eventually be there full-time.

“When Nara is in the classroom, with the support of our staff, students will take her out for a toilet break and make sure she has water,” he said.

“The end goal is that some of our senior students will become part of a Nara team and transport her around the school from different classrooms as her timetable gets a little fuller.”