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Schools

Golden retriever Bella ‘transforms lives’ in the Fife school which is her second home

The therapy dog is a lifeline for young people struggling at Bell Baxter High School. reports.
Cheryl Peebles
Bella with some of her trainers (from left) Kyle Mitchell (S4), Grace Alexander (S5), Bryony Lyons (S4), Abigail Rodriguez (S5) and Lennon McSporran (S3). Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson.
Bella with some of her trainers (from left) Kyle Mitchell (S4), Grace Alexander (S5), Bryony Lyons (S4), Abigail Rodriguez (S5) and Lennon McSporran (S3). Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson.

Bella is so at home in Bell Baxter High School she lies in the corridor as hundreds of teenagers file past between classes.

Pupils walk round the gentle golden retriever, some stopping to ruffle her velvety ears or give her a clap as they pass.

But for a few of them the therapy dog is more than a beloved school pet – she’s a lifeline when they are struggling.

Teacher and Bella’s keeper Linda Jeffrey said: “We have kids that only come to school because she’s here.”

Lennon McSporran, who has ADHD and autism, Kyle Mitchell and Bryony Lyons are just a few of those who have relied on Bella.

Bell Baxter High School is home from home for Bella. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson.

When three-year-old Bella joined Bell Baxter High as a puppy during the first Covid lockdown in 2020, few other schools had their own dogs.

School dogs are becoming more commonplace as the reported benefits for learning, attendance and mental health become more widely recognised.

Kyle, S4, was among the first pupils to form a bond with Bella.

Then in S1, he was having a tough time in the early days of the pandemic and his mum was eager he attend the activity centre in Bell Baxter for vulnerable children and children of key workers.

Kyle had other ideas and just wanted to shut himself away in his bedroom.

But Bella’s presence coaxed him out.

He said: “The second time I came I saw Bella and I ran towards her!”

He still gets support from Bella in classes he is reluctant to attend. She will sit at his feet and give him something to focus on.

Kyle said: “Sometimes I just don’t know what to do if she’s not there and I can break down. Whenever she’s there it makes me happy.”

Bryony found a friendly face in Bella when she was new to the school and remains her chief walker. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson.

For Bryony, S4, Bella was a friendly face when she arrived from a different school and was struggling to settle in.

She still takes Bella for daily walks and to some of her English classes, where Bella will climb into the seat next to her or nuzzle into her knee under the desk.

She said: “When I first started taking Bella to English I was quite new to the school.

“I didn’t know anyone, but I knew Bella.

“It felt good to know if I was upset Bella was just there.”

I would come and see Bella if I was struggling in class. I feel better every time after seeing her.”

Lennon, S3

When Lennon was in S1 and S2, he would regularly become overwhelmed and storm out of classes.

Now in S3, that happens less often but he still benefits from time with her to regulate his emotions.

Linda said: “He’d come in and he’d often lie on a beanbag in a quiet corner. Bella would go over to him and he would just decompress.”

Lennon said: “I would usually come down here and see Bella if I was struggling in class. It would make me feel better. I feel better every time after seeing her.”

Kyle Mitchell (left) and Lennon both benefit from Bella’s calming effect. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson.

His mum Jaqui is a pupil support assistant at the school, so has seen Bella’s touch both as a mother and staff member.

She said: “She’s absolutely invaluable and the kids absolutely dote on her.”

Outside school hours, Bella, who is so popular in the local community she has her own social media following, lives with Linda, principal teacher for enhanced support.

She has transformed lives, literally.”

Linda Jeffrey, principal teacher and Bella’s keeper

Guidance teachers will refer pupils they think would benefit from regular sessions with Bella or teachers will request a visit for a pupil in need of time out.

Pupils might cuddle and play with her in The Neuk, where Linda is based, take her out for walks, or have her join them in class.

Bella often visits the school’s department for additional support and she works with the school’s wellbeing ambassadors.

Although calm in nature Bella loves to run around and play. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson.

When I met Bella, her first job of the day had been joining the S1 nurture group for a brisk walk and hot chocolate, a soft start for pupils reluctant to attend school.

She also attends P7-S1 transition events, where her celebrity status precedes her, and even vaccination clinics, providing a welcome distraction from the needle.

Linda said: “P7s are very excited to see her. They’ve often heard about her, but to actually come and there’s a dog in the school, they just love it.”

Bella’s social media

Bella has over 1,800 followers on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Her renown is such that when she was spooked by fireworks and ran off as a pup folk from across Cupar and beyond went out searching for her, even sending up drones.

That esteem in the local community is perhaps in part due to the fundraising efforts of the two former pupils, whose idea it was to get a therapy dog.

After researching the benefits, Callum Christie and Logan Fenton persuaded the head teacher and got the backing of the parent council.

They raised over £2,500 to buy and train a puppy.

Bella as a pup with Callum Christie back in July 2020. Image: Steve Brown/DC Thomson.

Bella is accredited as a therapy dog by the Oliver’s Army assistance and therapy dogs charity, which regularly reassesses her.

She has a team of pupil trainers, recruited either to give them contact time with her or because they have shown a special interest in her.

When Bella arrived at Bell Baxter, school dogs were a rarity.

Linda said: “Staff were quite apprehensive about having a dog in the school; it was really unusual.

“The first few times you brought her in, you’d think ‘why is there a dog walking down the corridor?’

“Now kids don’t even notice her, they’ll just put their hand down and pet her as they pass.

“Everyone accepts she’s here and she’s here if you need her.”

And Bella is just as eager to be at Bell Baxter High School as pupils are to have her.

Linda says Bella has two homes – one with her and another at school. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson.

Linda said: “After the holidays she comes running in as if it’s ‘oh, I’m home!’ She’s so excited to see everyone.

“She has two houses and she thinks this is where she lives.”

Bella’s presence has improved the ethos of the whole school, according to Linda, but it’s what she’s done for individual kids that really counts.

Often going out for a walk with Bella or playing with her in The Neuk will help young people open up.

Bella with trainers Grace Alexander, S5, (left) and Abigail Rodriguez, S5. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson.

Linda explained: “I work with young people who find school really difficult.

“They won’t engage with any learning at all but if you take them to the park with Bella they will chat away with you and you find out things about life that really help you to connect.

“You can’t really quantify how much of an impact she has had but when you look at individuals you can see it; the likes of Lennon, who struggled in first and second year, Bryony, who came from a different school.

“I think she has transformed lives, literally.”

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