Kobe is the best friend a young person could have. He’s loving and kind, cheerful and perceptive – and three days a week, he offers support to students at Youth Off The Streets’ independent high school, The Lakes College (TLC).
He is also a qualified wellbeing dog.
The one-year-old labradoodle is handled by Natasha Matthews, a teacher at TLC and a long-time believer in the therapeutic benefits that wellbeing dogs can offer.
“I purchased Kobe when he was 16 weeks old,” Natasha recalls.
“Before that, I did about two years of research into the value of having a wellbeing dog in a classroom space. I wanted to know how they bring about connection and emotional regulation, and provide students with a sense of safety and calmness.”
Natasha met with a breeder six months before Kobe was born. She told them that she was searching for a placid, happy-go-lucky puppy who could learn new skills quickly.
“Three litters of puppies were born before I got a call from the breeder,” Natasha explains.
“She said, ‘I think that this particular puppy is showing the temperament that you want’ – and she was right.”
Now, Kobe’s primary role is making sure that students feel engaged with their learning and safe and welcome within the classroom environment.
“Often, kids will come in, and you can see from their faces and in their body language that they’re not feeling great,” Natasha says.
“The classroom is a place of anxiety for a lot of our students – especially if they struggle with reading or public speaking.”
“But the moment that Kobe is on their laps, their anxiety drops. He’s a safe space for them; a non-judgmental presence who won’t say anything about their opinions.”
Kobe is also very attuned to the needs of Natasha’s students. Sometimes, he runs around and plays ball games with students who are feeling particularly energetic.
Other times, Kobe roams the classroom and offers affection to students who are feeling distressed or unsettled.
“He is fantastic at modelling self-regulation and emotional intelligence,” Natasha states. “When students are feeling frustrated or anxious, they often find themselves looking at how their energy is going to impact Kobe.”
“So that grounding technique comes in, and the students realise that they need to shift their behaviour and calm themselves down.”
It’s no wonder that many TLC students have formed a special bond with Kobe.
“Kobe is a big fluffball of sunshine. He is always ready to give comfort when needed and he brightens everyone’s day,” says a student named Mason*. “He’s one of the big reasons that I come to school and try to stick out the days.”
Kobe is also a major reason that another student, Tilly*, maintains her school attendance.
“Kobe keeps me in a positive headspace,” Tilly says. “He is like my own weighted blanket. He sits on my lap when I’m doing my schoolwork, which helps me focus.”
“When I need a minute, I take a breather, pet him and have a cuddle.”
Kobe is also a source of camaraderie amongst the students. They assist with Kobe’s basic command and recall training, which he learns every Saturday from a professional assessor.
The students also bond over their affection for Kobe – who has become a beloved member of the local community as well as the TLC faculty.
“One time, Kobe walked out of our school grounds for maybe a minute,” Natasha says.
“We were getting calls left, right and centre, because community members were like, ‘It’s Kobe, the Youth Off The Streets dog!’ We had cars circling the neighbourhood and Kobe even ended up on a Facebook page.”
“It was beautiful to see that community support.”
Otherwise, Natasha has encountered few hurdles when handling Kobe.
“When he was a puppy, he walked into the counsellor’s office and peed on the carpet,” Natasha adds. “But that’s the only accident he ever had at school.”
Now, Kobe has matured from a playful puppy to a qualified wellbeing dog.
That means that, by law, Kobe must adhere to a strict daily schedule and receive plenty of rest.
“Every night, he comes home with me,” Natasha explains. “I often have to tell my children that this is Kobe’s downtime, so he can’t play Barbies right now.”
Natasha must also uphold workplace health and safety regulations – particularly where allergens and potential emotional triggers are concerned – and ensure that Kobe’s vaccinations are kept up to date.
But while Kobe will be her legal responsibility for the next 15 years, Natasha is wholly committed to caring for her canine colleague.
“There is nothing better than seeing a big, happy smile and a wagging tail as you come into school,” Natasha says.
“Kobe has been such a source of joy and comfort for our students, and I think that every school should have a wellbeing dog – if they have the capacity to support its needs as well as the young people’s.”