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Nescot’s assistance dog took part in the international dog competition Crufts on Thursday (March 9).

Rhubarb, an 18-month-old Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever, qualified for the ‘junior’ category at the show in his breed class and, unusually, every dog in his seven-puppy litter did likewise.

Although he didn’t place in the final round of the competition, his owner Zoe Brown, Head of Animal Studies and Catering at Nescot, said they had both learnt from the experience.

“The show was incredibly busy and noisy and Rhubarb is still a young dog, so he did very well,” Zoe said " and it was excellent training for his college role.

“I also learnt a lot about how the show ensures the dogs’ welfare, and what the dogs gain from the experience, and we’ve been able to discuss these ideas in class to support the students’ learning.”

Rhubarb joined Nescot as the college’s assistance dog in 2021, partly in response to rising concerns about students’ mental health.

Studies have shown that assistance dogs have a positive effect on students’ attendance, retention and achievement, as well as a therapeutic effect on mental health.

Zoe works closely with Canine Assisted Learning (CAL), who have been supporting his training and assessing Zoe and Rhubarb since he was ten weeks old.

Rhubarb, who was named by students, works with Animal Studies learners as well as supporting the Safeguarding team.

He provides company, reassurance and a listening ear for students who are feeling anxious or lonely, and he is also used as an incentive for attendance, timekeeping and achievement.

Rhubarb also supports teaching and learning with a range of tricks. For example, when students do interactive quizzes in class, he ‘chooses’ an answer on his own special 'Dog Button Board’.

“The students can then explain to Rhubarb why he is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in a way that isn’t threatening, and he can model for them that there’s no shame in getting it wrong,” said Zoe.

“It’s a good way of building the students’ confidence, both in terms of their vocational knowledge and in helping them to speak in front of the class.”

He is also training in scent work, which is developing the students’ knowledge as well as their handling skills, as well as teaching them about mindfulness.

“Scent work requires his whole brain to focus on one task, which is a good way for a dog to relax,” Zoe said. “That can be a helpful message for a student who is struggling with their mental health.

“Working closely with Rhubarb is also showing the students different career options, which supports the work they do with the cats as well as with the huge range of species on our animal care unit.”

Rhubarb is still undergoing training and assessment, and Zoe and the other three handlers receive ongoing support from CAL.

Nescot offers qualifications in Animal Studies at Level 1, Level 2 and Level 3, as well as at university-level. You can read more about our facilities, and the species we have, on our website here.