Helping children succeed at school with the use of therapy dogs
9 May 2022

MacKillop Family Services helping disengaged students re-enter classrooms with four-legged friends

MacKillop Family Services currently operate across Victoria, New South Wales and Western Australia, offering programs including out of home care, disability services, youth support services, education services and family services/support. They have been a CDF client for the past 25 years and during this time, CDF has provided a number of transactional banking solutions across their extensive network.  A rather new initiative from MacKillop Family Services is their Paw Pals program. It was developed to keep vulnerable young people (5 – 18 years of age) engaged with education. Through the use of therapy dogs, these young people are provided a safe and supportive learning environment where they can enhance their academic, social, and emotional skills.   Currently in place across 55 schools, MacKillop Family Services has seen great success with many students, like Ethan (see story below), now back in classrooms thanks to the canine-assisted learning program. Their team has also identified a real need for this program in many un-serviced areas, which is why they’re raising funds to extend its reach. Have a read of Ethan’s story below to understand the positive impact of the Paw Pals program.  On Thursday 28 April, MacKillop Family Services will be holding its fourth annual Paws4Kids Matched Giving Day. This year CDF is proud to be a Matching Partner and help MacKillop reach their goal of $330,000, which will support students in need across Melbourne and Geelong and see the expansion of the program to Ballarat.   All donations made on the day will have triple the impact. That means for every $50 donated, funds will be tripled to $150 by MacKillop’s Paws4Kids partners, which includes CDF.

How can you get involved?

You can help support MacKillop Family Services and the work of the Paw Pals team. As COVID-19 continues to cause disrupted learning and social disconnection, the waitlist of students seeking to access Paw Pals is growing. By getting involved in this year’s Paws4Kids Matched Giving Day you will directly help this program. Here’s how you can get involved: 
  • Share the Paws4Kids School Pack with your school: MacKillop Family Services has developed a Paws4Kids interactive school pack filled with a range of classroom activities and fundraising ideas that can be used with school communities. The activities are designed to help students understand the Paw Pals program and get involved. Click here to download the pack. 
  • Help fundraise: Whether you can fundraise in the lead-up to the Paws4Kids matched giving day on Thursday 28 April or donate on the day, you will be helping to create awareness and support for a program that makes a real difference in the lives of children and young people. Donations are open now at or phone 1300 218 935.  
  • Contact MacKillop Family Services about their Paw Pals program: if you think your school community could benefit from the MacKillop Paw Pals program, contact Susan Susan Parajuli, Community Engagement Officer, today (E: or P: 03 8687 7552). 
Ethan’s PawPals Story:  Six-year-old Ethan* was let down by the people who were supposed to look out for him.   He was given every reason not to trust the adults in his life, because everyone he trusted had let him down. At his mum’s house Ethan was ignored, yelled at, physically disciplined, neglected and told he was unwanted. He went in and out of his mum’s care until he could no longer safely live at home, and was eventually removed.  Because of everything that was happening at home, Ethan couldn’t concentrate at school. When he misbehaved, he was sent to the back of the classroom to sit by himself and was neglected. He was labelled as the naughty boy and eventually his attendance dropped.  This led Ethan to falling behind in his schoolwork; embarrassed that he couldn’t keep up with the other kids, so he stopped trying.   There were several attempts to place Ethan with a foster family, and every time Ethan got his hopes up, believing he had found the place where he belonged. But because of his challenging behaviour, every single placement fell through.  Eventually Ethan was placed in a residential care home with no other children. It was at this point that Ethan stopped going to school all together.  When Ethan was connected with Paw Pals Coordinator, Sarah Castle, she discovered that he was feeling so rejected that unwanted pain came out in big emotional outbursts: “When Ethan started at Paw Pals he couldn’t regulate his emotions. There were times where he would lash out and couldn’t control himself because these are the behaviours that he learned growing up.”   Sarah and the team started with the basics; they worked with Ethan on how to interact in a safe and friendly way using the Paw Pals therapy dogs. Ethan learned how to calmly behave with a dog, how to gently pat a dog, and how to play nicely with a dog.  Watching his four-legged Paw Pal, Indie, through her body language and reactions helped Ethan understand his own behaviours and reactions. Ethan could see that situations that made him stressed or anxious caused him to lose control of his emotions. He learned how to identify these feelings when they happened and learned the steps he could take to calm down.   Similarly canine commands and tricks increased Ethan’s self-esteem by making him feel confident in his ability to teach others. These activities required a high level of focus from Ethan, which also helped prepare him for concentrating in the classroom.  Ethan eventually got to the point where he could manage his behaviour so well that MacKillop Family Services offered him a place at the MacKillop School in Maidstone. Ethan was so excited to be going to a school where he could see his Paw Pals every day.  What Sarah found was that Ethan was not an angry, naughty kid who hated school. He was a smart, kind boy who just needed a program like Paw Pals to bring out the best in him, and help him realise his own potential.  Now, as a full-time student in MacKillop’s Maidstone campus, Ethan is an empowered student in his class. “He feels safe, he feels welcomed, he feels wanted, he’s made friends, and he’s able now to participate in the classroom,” says Sarah  If Ethan had never found Paw Pals, he would have continued the path that reinforced his feelings of being unwanted, unworthy, and unloved. He would have been caught in this cycle until he disengaged from school completely.   Children like Ethan who are struggling at home and at school are at risk of falling through the cracks and being left behind.   For more information about the Paw Pals program please click here.  *Name changed and model image used to protect privacy.