Last year, my sister bought a dog. Baxter is a cocker spaniel and is so full of energy that I think his name should probably be Atom. His favourite thing to do is chase birds. Baxter became part of the family, instantly bonding with my niece and nephew, and is now a presence that is impossible to imagine not being here. Dog owners everywhere will say something similar.

Dogs bring so much joy, love, and companionship, such basic needs, they will always be more than a pet. This relationship goes back 15,000 years, which Shaun Tan perfectly depicts in his book Dog (Walker Studio). It’s hard to think of anything else as loyal.

This loyalty and the ability to show unconditional love is why they can be ‘tools’ in therapy. It’s also why some schools have their own dog on site, but more on this later…

It won’t be news to anyone that dogs are one of the most popular animals in children’s literature. And it would be easy to list five or six of my favourites. But what is more interesting is the relationships in these stories. Between dogs, protagonists, and the reader. All the books are about bonds – it’s a theme 15,000 years in the making after all. But how they approach it is different.

You cannot get away from sadness in books with animals, so I’ll get it out of the way first. Love From Alfie McPoonst is the story of a little girl grieving over her beloved dog. Her parents write her letters from the dog to let the girl know he’s happy and not alone. But the problem with strong bonds is that they cannot last forever, just like in Gill Lewis’s A Street Dog Named Pup. (My thoughts also turn to the daemons in His Dark Materials and the pain in separation). Keeping the dog ‘alive’ in this way gives her a chance to say goodbye.

Like that story, Dog Gone, Our Very Own Dog, and Everywhere With You, the children in the texts don’t have brothers or sisters. The reader isn’t explicitly told this, but we infer it. In Everywhere With You, both the girl and dog are alone. Their relationship played out on opposite sides of a garden fence. The girl reads to the dog, and they have many adventures through the stories they share. Companionship and loneliness aren’t just important to those who are alone. You can have friends and family yet still feel lonely. 

The reader forms bonds with books and characters too. Most of the time, through empathy and humour. Both of these play a part in books about behaviour. Smelly Louie, This is a Dog, and Oh No, George don’t have a human character for most of the books, if at all. And an unsupervised dog, like a young child, can get up to mischief. The reader a fly-on-the-wall to their shenanigans. Mischief is an unfair word, though, because it implies intent. These books are about making decisions, not having the skills to think through your actions, acting on impulse, and doing what comes naturally.

These are just three different themes and relationships found in books with dogs. All of them are positive and beneficial. School dogs build relationships in the same way, but in real life. And, of course, you can involve books too.

Reading to dogs, or any animal, can build that all-important self-confidence in reading. Senior Lecturer Dr Helen Lewis with her colleague Dr Russell Grigg has written extensively on the subject of dogs and animals in schools. They explain that “those who read to animals feel relaxed and enthused.” One of their studies found that those that read out loud to a dog for 15 minutes at a time improved readers’ self-confidence over a term.

Animals are a large part of children’s lives from a young age. From books, television and film, and toys, children are exposed to animals even if they don’t have any pets themselves (Lewis). So there’s a bond even before they interact in person. Building on that with a school dog can bring benefits (and there are plenty) to those without access to animals. 

Regarding social interactions, it was found that children speak “more openly” when interacting with animals. Relationships with dogs work because they act as a “non-judgemental” friend. We see this in most books with dog characters, but children who benefit the most are those like Tom in Andy Mulligan’s Dog. Dogs can be used to help children who find making friends difficult. In one activity, a group of children played with a dog by hiding treats. They were “motivated to interact with each other” and “developed self-confidence” (Lewis and Grigg).

These social interactions are also for everyone. One study showed that the regular visits of a dog to a preschool helped children to initiate conversations. Not just with the dog but with other children and adults too (Lewis and Grigg). With many children suffering from the effects of the pandemic, animals can ”provide an important tonic” to loneliness and anxiety. These emotional development benefits mirror those in the books with only-children.

Benefits cover the social, emotional, physical, cognitive, and behavioural development of learners. Smelly Louie, This is a Dog, and Oh No, George, which I’ve mentioned, can help children reflect on their behaviour. Working in tandem, a school dog can help children “talk about their own, and others, behaviour and consequences” (Lewis). And we need to consider that dogs have their personalities and behaviours too. Children have been shown to learn to “adjust their behaviour to different situations – they know not to shout when [golden retriever] Honey is nearby” (Lewis). 

With all these benefits come many considerations. Plus, some organisations are sceptical of school animals and don’t encourage them. But it’s hard not to be impressed by the beautiful relationships between dogs and children in books which can be recreated at school. We all have our favourite dogs in literature, and how often have we wanted them to be real? As someone who didn’t grow up around dogs, I know I did lots of times.

The bond between reader and book is not all that dissimilar to the one shared between human and dog. I’m not suggesting we fill our schools with as many dogs as books, but like that one book that changes your life, there’s that one dog that completes it.

Many thanks to Dr Helen Lewis, Senior Lecturer at Swansea University, for the wealth of resources. For more information on school dogs, please follow your nose to Tails from the Classroom (Crown House Publishing, 2020) by Helen and Russell.