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Paw Pals help Ethan find a new love of learning

Meet Ethan: a six-year-old who had lost trust in adults, because everyone he trusted had let him down. At his mum’s house, he experienced neglect, abuse and was told he was unwanted. He went in and out of his mum’s care until he could no longer safely live at home and was removed.

It’s unsurprising Ethan couldn’t concentrate at school. When he misbehaved, he was sent to the back of the classroom to sit by himself and was forgotten. He was labelled as the naughty boy and started only coming to school for one hour a day.

Ethan fell behind in his schoolwork. He felt embarrassed that he couldn’t keep up with the other kids, so he stopped trying.

There were several attempts to place Ethan with a foster family, and every time Ethan got his hopes up, believing he had found the place where he belonged. But because of his challenging behaviour every placement fell through.

Ethan wound up living in a residential care home with no other children. It was at this point that he stopped going to school altogether.

Then, he found MacKillop’s Paw Pals program. Paw Pals is MacKillop’s Animal Assisted Education Program that connects therapy dogs with kids struggling at school, to help them learn.

A team of specially trained dogs (and their humans) help kids manage their behaviour, build self-esteem and independence, so they can regain a love of learning.

Paw Pals was created for students who have disengaged or are at risk of disengaging from education. Children who come to Paw Pals in need of support at school have often experienced trauma as well. Before they can set foot in the classroom, their fundamental needs of safety, belonging, and love must be met first.

Paw Pals Coordinator, Sarah Castle, discovered that when Ethan came to Paw Pals, Ethan was feeling so rejected that his pain came out in big emotional outbursts.

When Ethan started at Paw Pals he couldn’t regulate his emotions. There were times where he would lash out and couldn’t control himself because these are the behaviours that he learned growing up.

– Sarah Castle, Paw Pals Coordinator

Sarah and the team started with the basics; they worked with Ethan on how to interact in a safe and friendly way using the Paw Pals therapy dogs: Indie, Bruno and Barney. Ethan learned how to calmly behave with a dog, how to gently pat a dog, and how to play nicely with a dog.

Watching Paw Pal Indie’s body language and reactions helped Ethan understand his own behaviours and reactions. Ethan could see how situations that made him stressed or anxious caused him to lose control of his emotions. He learned how to identify these feelings as they happened and the steps he could take to calm down.

Teaching Paw Pal Bruno commands and tricks increased Ethan’s self-esteem by making him feel confident in his ability to teach others. These activities required a high level of focus from Ethan, which also helped prepare him for concentrating in the classroom.

Ethan worked on his reading and writing by reading stories to Paw Pal Barney and having Barney sit by his feet to support him as he practiced writing.

After working with the Paw Pals therapy dogs, Ethan began to manage his behaviour so well that he could return to the classroom. He recently enrolled in our MacKillop Education school and is so excited to be going to a school where he sees his Paw Pals every day.

Ethan has come so far with Paw Pals. He is attending school full-time and can control his emotions and focus in class now. Sarah says he’s one of their best students.

What Sarah found was that Ethan was not an angry, naughty kid who hated school. He was a smart, kind boy who just needed someone to believe in him.

He feels safe, he feels welcomed, he feels wanted, he’s made friends, and he’s able now to participate in the classroom.

– Sarah Castle, Paw Pals Coordinator

Paw Pals never gave up on Ethan. Dogs can see the good in every child and help children heal and grow in a place they feel they belong.

You can help Paw Pals reach more children like Ethan by supporting our Paw4Kids campaign on Thursday 27 April, where every donation will be doubled by our generous partners.