MacKillop Paw Pals program gives young people a learning lifeline

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therapy dogs young people
 Harrison and Indie from Paw Pals

An innovative, community-funded program run by MacKillop Family Services using animal assisted education is helping children in Victoria re-engage with education in a remarkable way.

Students with learning differences or special needs often struggle to engage with peers, concentrate on studies and learn effectively due to a host of classroom challenges. Social and emotional difficulties that kids face outside the school gates also hamper their progress at school.

MacKillop Family Services’ Paw Pals program uses animal assisted education to connect with young people who find it difficult to attend school due to issues such as anxiety or learning difficulties, which make it really challenging for them to be in a classroom.

“Paw Pals facilitators work with therapy dogs to help vulnerable children who are disengaged from education to understand their emotions by developing social and emotional skills and strategies,” MacKillop’s Education and Engagement Programs director Brona Walshe said.

“The therapy dogs provide a level of support that simply isn’t available in schools, helping children who struggle to understand their emotions by teaching them how to respond to the dog. Once calm, the children engage in learning activities with the dog.”

Since its launch in 2018 with one dog and a facilitator, Paw Pals has supported more than 800 kids to get back to education. Today the program has 14 facilitators and more than 20 rotating dogs working across Melbourne, Geelong and Ballarat. 

Besides school settings, Paw Pals therapy dogs also support vulnerable young individuals residing in MacKillop’s residential care homes, where they receive support to heal from past trauma and prepare for transition into adulthood.

MacKillop’s Paw Pals program is funded by the community, driven by an annual matched giving day appeal on Tuesday, 30 April.

This year, the Paw Pals Appeal aims to raise $360,000 and all donations made on or before 30 April will be tripled by generous matching partners: CCI Giving, Catholic Development Fund, iCare Staffing, Queensland Gives, the Paw Prints Matching Circle and Major Partner Petstock Foundation. 

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