MEET the newest member of staff at Bloomfield Primary School – Parker the Labradoodle.

At just 10 weeks old, Parker is beginning a full-time working life as he embarks on his new position as a therapy dog at the Bangor-based primary school.

While he is not ready to go into classrooms just yet, Parker is currently being trained by the school’s principal, Rebecca Bishop, who also takes him home each night.

It is hoped that Parker will become a large part of school life, helping to encourage engagement in school life and learning, attendance and positive behaviour.

Mrs Bishop explained how the unusual opportunity came to be, when she was approached by charity Assistance Dogs NI and asked if the school would like to foster a therapy dog last month.

With mental health funding available to be spent after lockdown, Mrs Bishop said she had previously arranged for an assistance dog called Kyra to visit the school weekly for ten weeks, through the charity.

Kyra came to the school for two hours at a time, with her foster carer, to meet with the schoolchildren and over time everybody at the school was delighted when Kyra came to visit.

The initiative was pegged as a success and so, while they arranged more therapy visits, Mrs Bishop got in touch with Geraldine McGaughey, the CEO at Assistance Dogs NI.

Mrs Bishop explained: “I asked if I bought myself a puppy would she be able to train it and she told me that wasn’t the way it worked.”

Mrs McGaughey told the principal that they sought out their assistance dogs from reputable breeders, viewing the dog parents and the temperaments of the puppies before deciding if they would be suitable therapy dogs.

“I told her I was very interested in becoming a fosterer for an assistance dog for our school and that was about a year ago, so I assumed it wouldn’t happen before I retire,” Mrs Bishop continued.

But as the Christmas holidays began last month, Mrs Bishop was delighted to be asked if she was still interested in becoming a foster parent for an assistance dog for the school.

Mrs Bishop was told to pick out a name beginning with the letter ‘P’ for both a female and male dog, as the charity names their litters in alphabetical order, and so she asked the children for their suggestions.

When she was told she would be taking a male dog to the school, the name Parker came out on top.

She continued: “Parker is the school’s dog. He doesn’t belong to me, I just take him home and look after him in the evenings and weekends, as well as holidays.

“He comes to school with me every day to get socialised with the sounds, smells and sights of the school and I have to attend training for one hour a week with Parker.

“As the charity trainers would say they are ‘training the trainers, not training the dog’ to make sure that we are doing the right thing for the dog to make sure our behaviours are up to scratch, never mind the dogs.”

Currently Parker has a crate and a pen in the principal’s office, providing him safety as he completes his training and grows.

Once Parker is fully grown and trained, it is hoped that he will have a base in the school’s learning support centre and that he will go out and visit other classes on a timetabled basis.

“The idea is that he will be there to read to, talk to and to engage in with play,” Mrs Bishop added.

“I don’t know what that timetable will look like in terms of how much time he has interacting with children and how much downtime he has, but I would dare say the downtime has to be built into his day.”

Mrs Bishop assured that any time spent with Parker would be supervised by an adult, adding that the school understood that some children may not want to come into contact with dogs or may have allergies.

“We will be doing a risk assessment and making sure everything is safe for all the children that want to be involved with Parker,” she said.

It is hoped that Parker will eventually become a welcoming beacon at the school for children and staff in the mornings, as well as helping encourage them back into the building after playtime and helping with children feeling emotionally distressed.

Assistance Dogs NI is a charity which receives no core government funding for their work. At present, the charity has trained and provided 16 full-time school assistance therapy dogs.

Parker is one of eight pups from a litter of 12 to have been assigned to a school in Northern Ireland.