Dear Sarah,

As a fellow Australian Catholic University (ACU) Alumni it is with great pleasure and pride that \ write to congratulate you on being the recipient of the Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Leadership Alumni Award in ACU's Alumni Awards 2021. 

Your outstanding work and commitment to improving the educational outcomes for children through dog therapy in schools is to be commended; and is testament to how the tailoring of educational tools to suit student needs has the power to change lives for the better. As a former teacher I know that access to a quality, and innovative education system is an important component in ensuring that our children have the skills and knowledge to lead successful lives, especially for those students with special needs. Thank you for your contribution in helping to achieve this positive outcome. Thank you also for the wonderful work you have continued to do during the last 2 very challenging years of COVID-19. You are indeed an exceptional and inspirational role model to not only to the school communities and others, whom you selflessly serve, but also to future ACU Alumni. Once again, congratulations on your award, and\ wish you further success in your career and future endeavours. 

Yours sincerely,

Labor Senator for NSW

Senator Deborah O'Neil

I am delighted to advise you that you have been selected as ACU’s Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Leadership Alumni Award winner for 2021.

The judges were inspired by your achievements, impact and successes – in particular they noted your positive impact on the community’s most vulnerable children.   

Congratulations again – we look forward to sharing your inspirational story with our ACU communities. 

- Starr Reyes, Alumni Services Officer  I Advancement and Alumni,  Australian Catholic University

Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Leadership Alumni Award winner

The Canine Comprehension program returned to our school in 2020 Term 4. We were also given the option of a condensed 4-week program to cater to two other groups ranging from Prep-Year 2 and Year 3-6. We cannot commend this program enough and have used it for a few years now. It reinforces the social & emotional program within our school & allows children to ultimately reflect on & work through their own obstacles while working with the dog. The final obstacle course designed by the children guides the dog through a series of challenges. This is always the highlight. An excellent program which every school should invest in! Every child wants in!

Every school should invest in this program!

We have been working with the Canine Comprehension team for a couple of years now. I cannot speak more highly of their professionalism, knowledge, compassion, skill, connection, organisation, communication and understanding. Sarah Macdonald is an exceptional professional - with humans and canines! Her knowledge of dogs, the school system, people of all ages and how they all fit together is remarkable. Her understanding cannot be understated. We contacted Sarah with a challenged teenager and a new pup he wanted to take to school. Sarah engaged with my son, his new pup quickly establishing rapport and trust. The pup responded quickly and positively to the training. Sarah then connected with school, a new experience for them to have a dog in the school. A profound respect was quickly established and the dog went to school with my son for over a year until he finished VCE. Sarah was there the whole way with us. I cannot more highly recommend Canine Comprehension.

Wow. Simply wow.

Alison and Jet were fantastic in building instant rapport and trust with our students. Alison was professional, warm and direct with the facilitation of the program which suited the needs of our students. She showed flexibility and adapted to the overt presentation of students e.g. Some behavioural issues and continued with the program in a non-judgemental way. Our students responded well to the program especially to Jet who they looked forward to seeing and physically connect with eg. Patting and hugging Jet and asking him to perform tricks….Overall, a very good program.

- Lynall Hall Community School: Island Campus, Youth Worker

Professional, warm and direct.

I wanted to let you know that the AAT program has been going really well at our school. The students (and staff) love having Lucy (and Jasmine) at our school. The students chosen by teachers to be involved this year have different needs and difficulties to the students that were involved last year. My observations of the students during the program seem to indicate that they are getting a lot out of the program.  

We have also been able to have the student who was involved in the dog attack have a little one on one time with Lucy (and Jasmine) each week and she has been getting more comfortable with Lucy each week so that has been an added bonus for our school. 

- PWO, Fawkner PS 

Getting a lot out of the program

Adrian* lives at home with his parents and two older brothers. He has attended our school since Prep. Adrian has an intellectual disability, as does his eldest brother. Adrian regularly suffered anxiety throughout his school day, particularly when required to follow teacher instructions (transitioning between activities and spaces within the school).

Problem behaviours included absconding from the classroom and meeting sensory needs through destructive / inappropriate use of resources. Though initially apprehensive, Adrian came to enjoy his regular interactions with the dog. During his session and immediately after them, Adrian was substantially calmer and less prone to anxiety and more inclined to follow instructions from school staff.

Adrian has shown some improvements since his inclusion in the program. He is noticeably calmer upon arrival to school and prior to departing in the afternoon. Generally, Adrian is less prone to anxiety and more inclined to follow directions from staff.

- Primary School Teacher

Noticeably calmer student

Important work - dogs and mindfulness in the classroom. Creative way to help at risk kids to learn.

- Judge - 2019 Stevie Awards, New York.

Important work

The field you selected is really necessary for any country. Because Children's are the next future. It need lot of patience and Innovation methodologies to train. Good luck.

- Judge - 2019 Stevie Awards, New York.

Patience and Innovation

Sarah is doing amazing work improving children's futures.

- Judge - 2019 Stevie Awards, New York.

Improving children's futures

I love the entire business and results! So inspiring!

- Judge - 2019 Stevie Awards, New York.

So inspiring!

You make me proud to be an Aussie! Wish we were close enough for my teen to attend your classes. You are amazing. Fantastic story, well told. I especially love the video.

- Judge - 2019 Stevie Awards, New York.

Fantastic story

I felt the tutor was able to accurately pitch and adjust each session. The group dynamics was well supported by giving individual students positive and constructive feedback. There has been a significant change in the capacity of the students to feel comfortable with each other and the dogs and to be better equipped to understand how they communicate to one another.

We felt that we were very fortunate to participate in this program and hope it can be an ongoing partnership.

- Learning diversity and transition leader, Sacred Heart primary school Fitzroy.

Significant change

The best thing about the program was playing with Joosh, she was my favourite. I also liked it when Chelsie talks to us about how we feel about going to high school. When we were meditating she has a really calming voice everything was perfect. I hope to see them again.

- Year 6 student, Sacred heart school, Fitzroy

Really calming

The tutor was able to engage the students and relate to the strategies to the students needs. I was extremely happy with the content of the program. The students were happier at school and even the staff were able to learn some more strategies to help them. I couldn’t be happier with the program and the impact it has had on our anxious at risk students.

- Assistant principal, Mount Ridley College

Extremely happy with the content

My favourite thing was being with the dogs and having something to look forward to at school.

- year 7 student, Catholic Ladies College, Eltham

Look forward to school.

The program taught me how to be able to understand myself more and be able to calm myself. 

- Year 7 student, McGuire College, Shepparton


The students have felt comfortable to discuss their anxiety in front of other students.  The students would have liked more weeks it is a fantastic program.

- Learning support leader, Catholic Ladies College, Eltham

Comfortable to discuss their anxiety

'The  best  thing  about  this  program is that it calmed me down and helped me to feel  less  anxious.  I felt very stressed  a  lot  of  the time before I started  this  program.'

- Student,  Year  11  – Yarra/Darebin

Helped me to feel †less †anxious

I was introduced to Canine Comprehension because Sarah was my puppy trainer.  Young people in my programs are less anxious, more engaged with learning, school and peers through working with Canine Comprehension.  

I would recommend Canine Comprehension to others because they are professional, friendly, effective and amazing.

- Rachael Scoble, Epping

Less anxious, more engaged.

I decided I needed an English tutor for extra help during year 12.  Having a tutor allowed me to have a second perspective on what I was learning at school.  I also decided I needed a tutor as one on one lessons would further my understanding on subjects as a teacher with 23 other students could not.

My lessons with Sarah were usually an hour long and we would do multiple tasks to assist with what I was learning in class.  We created a 'vocab bank' to demonstrate a larger vocabulary and I would write down objectives and ways to begin sentences alternatively.  We would look at essay writing by myself and other students and I learnt how to write higher quality essays.  We would plan essays and continue to edit other essays I had previously written.

In our lessons we would also find background information on characters in the novels I was studying and use that insight to fully grasp an understanding of the texts.  The notes taken during our lessons would be emailed to me so I could look over it during the week when I studied.

Through tutoring I was able to greatly improve my marks.  Having a second person who has a vested interest in my education helped me to achieve higher.  I learnt how to think about ideas for myself instead of just resighting what my class mates and teacher has said.

The lessons would act as a revision and due to that I found that revising was mush easier to do when you have structure in your planning.  As the year went on I found an interest in what I was learning and I was more driven to achieve the highest mark possible.

I would highly recommend Sarah as a tutor for anyone who has a little self doubt.  Sarah has the ability to bring out the best in you.

- Brianna - VCE Student

Highly recommend

The impact this kind of tutoring has had on my young people has been quite incredible.  

Sarah is well informed about children's educational practices and animal therapy, and the two mesh together to provide safe, secure learning environments for young people affected by trauma.  The use of an animal aid to engage with and bring a burst of happiness into these children's lives has seen them change and grow over time.  

Before Sarah became their tutor, there was little evidence to suggest any would take a pencil in their hand and write letters, let alone concentrate on anything that looked like book work.

- Anonymous Carer

For young people affected by trauma

Sarah brings together her passions and vibrance for her work with young people coupled with an outstanding ability to train dogs a therapeutic aids.  The clients Sarah has been working with have complex behavioural and socioemotional requirements.  

The unique idea of incorporating dog assisted therapy and children's educational needs has served our clients well through weekly tutroing in their homes.

- Anonymous Carer, Berry Street, residential care home.

Dogs a therapeutic aids

While I've always known on one level the health benefits that can be experienced when people have access to pets, over the past 6 months i have witnessed the profound positive impact that pet therapy sessions can have on increasing a child's engagement with school.  There is nothing more rewarding than seeing a child who was previously resistant to attending school not only be enthusiastic about coming to be involved in the pet therapy sessions but actively involved and challenging themselves through competing the activities that are presented to them.  

Sarah has a beautiful way of relating to the students needs and interests and weaves this through their interactions with the dog and the learning tasks she plans for them.  I've watched as the student has gained more and more confidence in themselves and their own ability through training Oscar to do tricks and then build on this confidence by engaging in increasing amounts with the regular school program.  The flow on benefits for the rest of our students as well have been huge and everyone's feelings get a lift when Sarah and Oscar walk into the school grounds.

I can't speak highly enough of the program that Sarah provides and am now looking at ways in which more of our students can benefit from the program she provides.  It is said that a picture paints a thousand words and to see the huge smile that lights up my students face each time Sarah and Oscar are here is worth every moment and dollar I spend in the program.

- Anonymous Teacher

Profound positive impact

Our young people who have experienced trauma, find it particularly difficult to establish relationships and build trust.  One of the beautiful things I have observed is the bond that grows between the child and the dog and of course with Sarah.  The young people don't feel judged or intimidated by the dog and find it easier to talk and open up.  This in turn helps them to build self confidence and enhance their relationships with others.

One of the most valuable out-comes our children and young people get from working with dogs and Sarah, is the 'space' that Sarah creates that enables them to learn.  Working with the dogs helps them to find a calm state, a 'space' in their over-active brains for new information to be processed.  Traumatised children and young people find it difficult to absorb and process new information.  Interacting with the dogs, together with the mindfulness practices used by Sarah, allows our children and young people not only to engage with learning, but to experience success in learning and to discover that learning can be fun.

- Guilla Digiglio - Mackillop Family Services

Young people don't feel judged or intimidated

The best thing about this program is creating a network of friends who I know struggle in a similar way to me.

- Student, Year 11 - Yarra/Darebin

Met new friends

Many of the students involved are showing more persistence in their day-to-day activities. They seem more confident in dealing with their peers and are less anxious in the classroom.

- Teacher Primary School – Whittlesea

Students showing more persistence

Fantastic program. Jovana was outstanding at exploring strategies to reduce anxiety, whilst holding the girls' emotional wellbeing and then returning back to a group situation.

- Secondary School SWC - Yarra / Darebin

Strategies to†reduce anxiety

Mill Park Heights Primary school were privileged to be able to participate in the Canine Comprehension Program.  We certainly recommend Sarah and Minnie to other schools where children have worries.

- Teacher - Mill Park Heights Primary School, Mill Park

We feel privileged to be able to participate

Most significant change has been students forming relationships with students they haven't previously had a friendship with and confidence in talking about their thoughts and feelings.

- Secondary School SWC - Moreland

Students forming relationships

The change in this particular student has been amazing  -confidence; willingness to speak with others in formal and informal situations. A student who now smiles and actively engages with others. She also uses her initiative and makes decisions independently which she wasn't doing before.
- Secondary School SWC - Moreland

Students now smile

"Our students loved the visits with Sarah and Minnie, during the 8 week program, they grew in confidence and we were able to articulate strategies they could use to alleviate stress in their lives and talk themselves into a positive frame of mind.  

Minnie was great at displaying the emotions that the students feel every day, and the students were comfortable to discuss Minnie's emotions while learning about their own!  

Would definitely recommend this program to schools looking to support anxious students!"

Our students loved the visits!

The canine comprehension program was a terrific addition to our social emotional learning at St Catherine's.  The students thoroughly enjoyed each session particularly handling George the dog.  

I could see the students develop confidence and they willingly shared their emotions.  The instructor Gemma was professional and gave good strategies for the students to use when they felt anxious.  

Some of the students in the program have made it clear that they would like to own a dog like George on day.  

Thank you so much!

- Teacher - St Catherine’s, Lalor

Terrific addition to our social emotional learning

What a fantastic 8 weeks we have had with Gemma and George.

Students have gone away with more confidence and some with a love for dogs when before they were fearful.  

Thanks so much! Should happen in every school!

-  Anonymous teacher, Stevensville Primary school.

Should happen in every school!

"The Wellbeing Team at Lalor Secondary College has acquired the services of Canine Comprehension to assist with junior school students who present with increased levels of anxiety, stress or require additional support with problem solving. Canine Comprehension has also actively participated and been an integral support at Lalor Secondary College’s Discovery Evening. Staff at Canine Comprehension have always maintained professionalism whilst exercising a level of compassion when working with our students. I highly recommend Canine Comprehension to all schools and organisations working with vulnerable children and young people in the community.

Canine Comprehension is enjoyable, a great engagement tool and effective – the program works and improves student outcomes. I found the staff at Canine Comprehension to be approachable, kind, enthusiastic, knowledgeable and committed to student wellbeing; whilst always maintaining professionalism and exercising a level of compassion. 

By integrating a therapeutic dog alongside a practitioner in an educational setting, students appeared more inclined to open up and connect with one another – fostering resilience and assisting with the overall learning process. 
The benefits of implementing Canine Comprehension at our College include assistance with students transitioning from primary into secondary, students developing better problem solving skills, increase in self-confidence, learning about mindfulness and how it can be integrated into everyday life to reduce anxiety or stress. 

In all my years working as a social worker, Canine Comprehension would have to be one of the most positive, engaging and effective programs I’ve been involved in. Staff at Canine Comprehension has always maintained professionalism whilst exercising a level of compassion when working with our students. I highly recommend Canine Comprehension to all schools and organisations working with vulnerable children and young people in the community. Keep up the great work Sarah, Oscar & Co!

- Laz Zaekis, Student Well being Leader - Lalor Secondary College

The most positive, engaging and effective programs Iíve been involved in.

Canine Comprehension was recommended by another tutor.  Initially my daughter did not want to have anything to do with a tutor, she now looks forward to attending her sessions with Sarah and her dogs, she is disappointed if she has to miss a session!  Working with Canine Comprehension has been an amazing benefit to my daughter not only on an academic level but an emotional level as well. 

My daughter has been able to talk to Sarah, and Sarah is able to understand where my daughter is struggling with different issues. Sarah has also worked with my daughters school. Of course, the dogs always provide the additional comfort and my daughter looks forward to seeing them too.  

Good tutoring, emotional as well as academic support, ability to liaise with the school, ability to break down issued to make them more manageable and a lovely rapport with my daughter are all reasons why I would recommend Canine Comprehension to others.

- Vicki, Parent, Melbourne

Student now looks forward to attending her sessions

Some of the more anxious isolated students in particular have responded really well to the program.

-  Assistant Principal Primary School  - Whittlesea

Responded really well

Thanks so much Gemma and George for working with us each week.  You made us feel important and helped us to learn strategies to work through our problems.  We loved teaching George some tricks and he is so caring and gentle.  The CC program was the highlight of our week!

- Student - Whittlesea.

Made us feel important

"Some of the more anxious isolated students in particular have responded really well to the program."

Assistant Principal Primary School - Whittlesea

'The best thing about this program is giving me confidence and not always being anxious'

Student, Year 7 - Moreland

'The  program had a huge impact on my anxiety and has helped me overcome it.'

Student, Year 9 - Moreland

'I Love Charlie and Jo!! It was a really good program and it helped me with a lot of things, even with finding new friends."

Grade 5 Student - Whittlesea

‘This program really helped me realise the types of attitudes that I used towards myself and how sometimes I need to be more positive towards myself’.

Student, Grade 6

‘Knowing others are feeling the way I do some-times’.

Student, Grade 6

What was the best thing about doing the program: 'Meeting others and feeling wanted.'

Student, Year 8 - Moreland

‘I learnt so many techniques and emotions, that I have actually experienced. It also helped me understand the importance of mindfulness’.

Student, Grade 6

Interacting with the dog. Colouring in. Learning about all the techniques to improve my confidence and all the mindfulness strategies, etc really helped me to improve my confidence.

- Student, Year 7

Helped me to improve my confidence

I can calm myself down in mindfulness. I can get happy with Chachka and I can leave all my bad days behind.

- Student, Grade 5

I can leave all my bad days behind

Most Significant Change I have observed particular students come out of their shell throughout the duration of the program, which was great to see. There has been greater connections made between students in both primary and secondary groups and I saw some of these new connections continue outside of the group.

- Secondary School SWC - Yarra/Darebin

Greater connections made between students

Jim taught us how to deal/calm yourself down, I can deal with my emotions now.

- Student, Year 7

Can calm myself