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Picture: Supplied.

Principal introduces furry friend to reduce staff stress

As long as she could remember, Sydney principal Alison Felici always loved dogs.

"I've had a lot of rescue dogs over time," Alison told Education Review.

"Now I have two pugs, and Micky."

In the aftermath of back-to-back Covid-19 lockdowns during 2022, Alison returned to work at St Michael's Catholic primary school in Meadowbank and noticed leftover stress and anxiety.

Students were refusing to come back to school, and worried parents were ringing into the office asking for help.

"At the time, we still had restrictions, and we weren't quite sure what was coming next," she said.

The former relief teacher had toyed with the idea of acquiring a wellbeing dog for a while.

"I had already thought about bringing a dog to school when I was assistant principal, and then Covid hit, but that was the right time to do it," Alison said.

"From the moment we got Micky that first morning, the positive vibe in the staff room - it was electrifying."

After finding Dogs Connect, an organisation which pairs trained therapy dogs into Australian schools, Alison found Micky - a blonde Groodle, who is now 11-months old.

Micky comes into the school several times a week, splitting her time between classrooms, sitting in the principal's office, or playing ball in the staff area.

"She is so gentle and loves everyone, there are no favourites, she is just so happy to be with people," Alison said.

"Staff have become happier in their job, and children feel calmer around her."

St Michael's students with Micky. Picture: Supplied.

A March analysis from the Black dog institute showed teacher's in Australia experience four times higher rates of anxiety, stress and depression than the general population.

Furthermore, a recent preliminary report on principal's wellbeing by ACU found schools leaders mental health was also at an all-time low

The survey also showed more than 95 per cent of principals were worried about staff stress and burnout.

On the upside, past research has shown that spending 20 minutes with a dog can improve mood and reduce anxiety.

At St Michael's, having Micky around has helped to uplift the entire school community, Alison said.

"Everyone talks about Micky. They all have funny stories about how she was in their classroom and even exchange pictures of her," she said.

Picture: Supplied.

Alison describes Micky as being a gentle soul with "sass and determination", who is grateful for any toys but always ready to do her job.

Micky's soothing role also works on students, with the school reporting a decline in behavioural issues among students.

"We actually use her as motivation. Students have a reward chart, and once they do something good, they get a picture of her," Alison said.

"Kids that were reluctant to come to school now detach from their parents as soon as they see her."

Boosting people's confidence and helping others has always been Alison's primary motivation since she began teaching more than 30 years ago.

"When I was young, I liked playing 'teachers', making sure everyone was okay, and I had probably the neatest writing you've ever seen," she said.

Every day Alison takes the time to build relationships with teachers, support staff, students, parents and stakeholders, a task in which Micky plays an essential role as she is an ice-breaker.

"Relationships are the most important part of my style of leadership, making sure people feel comfortable, gaining their trust and listening to them because everybody has different needs," she said.

"I want our community to feel valued.

"Micky definitely helped me in my role as a principal."

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