Wednesday was a day of many firsts for Toffee the four-month-old Labradoodle puppy: it was the first time she accompanied high school teacher-librarian Martin Felice to work; it was the first time she encountered students (plus the school's cows and chickens); and it was the first time the little dog assumed her new role as James Sheahan's therapy dog.
It was also the first time a school in Orange had acquired its own dog to help children with both their mental health and education.
Toffee's owner and trainer Martin Felice had been interested in the research surrounding therapy dogs for some years - which overwhelmingly showed the impact they had on learning outcomes in schools.
This included increased school attendance, improved classroom behaviour, gains in confidence, decreased stress and anxiety and enhanced relationships with peers and teachers.
Therapy dogs did this by "breaking down barriers", Mr Felice explained.
For children who experienced difficulty reading, Toffee provided a "non-judgemental" ear for them to practice with until they gained confidence.
For students who struggled with the social aspects of the school yard and gravitated towards the library, Toffee provided the unconditional love which helped them self-regulate - assisting introverted children in coming out of their shells.
Although still very young and only two months into her training, Mr Felice already has big hopes for the important impact the little dog will have.
"Essentially [she's] my dog - she comes home with me every day and comes into school three days a week but she's a community dog," he said.
"Hopefully she'll become recognisable, as 'the James Sheahan dog'... and hopefully she'll become known as a highly-trained education support dog."
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