went to the dogs? Schools use therapy animals to boost mental health, academics

Sometimes students say a few words to school counselor Kelly Baker when they walk into her office, making a beeline for Kalani, a golden retriever/poodle mix trained to serve as the school’s therapy dog. Is.

Morris, Okla., elementary school students who are stressed, struggling to manage big emotions, or dealing with crises at home, bury their faces in Kalani’s golden fur and relax from his comforting presence Slow your breath to match.

It is not uncommon for schools to teach children breathing exercises and calming techniques. At Morris, having two therapy dogs causes some students to instinctively do those things, Baker said.

“They work through those feelings and say, ‘Hey, Ms. Baker, I’m ready to go back to class,'” she said.

For others, dogs provide a sense of security that helps them muster up the courage to ask adults for help.

“The kids would come off and into the reserve,” Baker said. “I don’t ask anything. They are on the floor playing with the dog and they start sharing with me.

Faced with a worsening youth mental health crisis, more schools have brought therapy dogs on board to help students cope. Some integrate animals into academic work, in interventions for students with disabilities, or as part of classroom engagement strategies.

“Especially if a student loves animals, we see some amazing growth,” said Jennifer Vonlintel, a school counselor at BF Kitchen Elementary School in Loveland, Colo.

It is clear that the pandemic has contributed to a growing interest in bringing therapy dogs into schools. Districts in states including ColoradoMichiganOklahomaand Virginia It has also used parts of $123 billion in K-12 relief funds provided through the American Rescue Plan to pay for specialized therapy dog ​​training, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

more than just classroom pets

Formal therapy dog ​​work began in the 1970s for use in hospitals, but it has become more prevalent in recent decades, especially in educational settings. And as more academic research emerges on the benefits of the human-animal bond, schools are working with canine companions in more sophisticated ways.

School therapy dogs aren’t just classroom pets, Vonlintel said. Rather, school social workers, counselors, physical therapists, behavioral interventionists and special education teachers integrate them into specific tasks with students, she said.

For example, students with developmental disabilities can learn better communication skills by instructing animals to sit or stay. Some children practice behavior management by studying the signs that a dog is feeling relaxed — such as ears that hang loosely instead of lying flat against the head.

“When people approach me and say they want to bring a dog to the school, my first question is, ‘What is your goal?’,

Therapy dogs are trained to provide assistance in a community environment. They differ from service dogs, which are trained to assist individuals with specific tasks related to physical disabilities.

When VonLintel and a golden retriever named Copper started her school’s therapy dog ​​program 14 years ago, she couldn’t find specific training locally, so she worked with a Colorado trainer to help her meet the needs of the school environment. Service dog training can be adopted for

The program grew from there. This year, six teams of volunteer handlers will bring dogs ranging from Chihuahuas to Bernese Mountain Dogs to Loveland District schools.

In addition to monitoring the dogs’ interactions with the students, the handlers learned something about academic skills, such as reading, so they could ask follow-up questions to guide the students’ comprehension as their dogs interacted with the read-aloud session. sit with small groups during

“I would say, ‘I don’t think Toby understood what was going on on those last two pages,'” VonLintel said, referring to his current therapy dog, a small brown Cavalier King Charles Spaniel mix. “Can you tell her what was happening in the story?”

sit, stay, and study

A personal Facebook page VonLintel started sharing their experiences in setting up the therapy dog ​​program now has 9,000 members who offer tips on training, school board policies, insurance, and how to incorporate animals into therapy and instruction.

Interest in the use of therapy dogs in the Loveland district has grown to the point that it now offers an on-site, evening training program where interested staff members can bring their dogs to learn in the school environment.

Dogs practice everything from basic commands to staying calm in the unlikely event of a classroom lockdown drill. They must pass an assessment before they can work in a school, and they must be reevaluated regularly in order to continue that work in future years.

Training is also important for handlers, who must learn to recognize when a dog is tired or stressed and monitor their interactions with students, says Helen, director of the Human-Animal Bond in Colorado, a research center at Colorado State University. Holmquist-Johnson said. Train and screen volunteer facilitators to work in 30 schools in the region. Researchers there also study the effects of animal-assisted interventions, and develop approaches for students with specific conditions such as autism.

Holmquist-Johnson recommends vetted, well-developed training programs such as those offered by Pet Partners, a nonprofit organization for volunteer handlers.

Starting a School Therapy Dog Program With Community Support

Access to training was a big concern for Baker, a counselor in the Morris, Okla., district, where the therapy dog ​​program is still in its infancy.

The rural school system hasn’t had an elementary school counselor in more than 20 years when Baker starts work there in 2021, her position funded by a state grant.

In her first few weeks on the job, she noticed that students were struggling with behavior and emotions after months of COVID disruptions — part of a national trend. American Academy of Pediatrics and US Surgeon General warn about youth mental health crisis worsened by the epidemic.

At Morris, some children had lost family members—and some were uncomfortable with the school environment. He said those students seemed “frozen in time”, yet they were still developing at the start of the pandemic.

Morris Elementary School librarian Lisa Merrill shadows walk into a classroom at the school on Jan. 17, 2023 in Morris, Okla.

Baker had experience working with therapy dogs in his previous role in the juvenile justice system and thought he might be a good fit for Morris.

She was at the beginning of her research when she got a call from a breeder about a dog she later named Kalani. She was a puppy of what are commonly known as Goldendoodles—a mix of a golden retriever and a poodle—with the intention of producing a lower-shedding coat. Unlike other puppies, Kalani was not born with a curly coat, and people were less interested in purchasing her.

The breeder offered to donate Kalani to the district for use as a therapy dog. Later, another breeder donated Shadow, a black Goldendoodle who is handled by the elementary school librarian and occasionally works at the district’s high school.

Morris Schools designated the dogs as property of the district, not the staff who handle them at school and care for them at home. This allowed Baker, librarian Lisa Merrill and principal Becky Alexander to add the animals to the district’s insurance plan and raise funds that helped pay for the training.

$10,000 in private donations covered an intensive boarding program that allowed the dogs to learn on-site at the training facility for several two-week sessions, and additional handler training for Baker and Merrill who worked with their program .

That training prepared the dogs to be calm and disciplined in unfamiliar environments. They went to Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club for exposure to crowds and noises such as shopping carts and fork lifts, so they could feel comfortable with wheelchairs and students with various visual disabilities.

Alexander said the community quickly recognized the benefits of the dogs, whose harnesses bear the logos of certain businesses, helping cover the training costs.

“So many schools are in the same boat as us,” she said. “They say, ‘I want to do this. We’ve got our team, but we don’t know the steps to do it,'” she said.

Answering Logical Questions About School Therapy Dogs

Loveland counselor VonLintel recommends coordinating with trained volunteer handlers who bring their dogs and manage things like training, certification and insurance. Such a model is less expensive and challenging than creating a program from scratch.

Schools can contact local volunteer handler groups or consult with organizations such as Pet Partners Or the American Kennel Club to locate teams, she said.

Whatever model the school uses, the dogs should be given plenty of rest days and time on site so they don’t become burned out in the high-sensory environment, Vonlintel said.

Toby, who was rescued as part of an animal welfare investigation, comes to school one day a week. He spins in excited circles when he sees VonLintel pick up the backpack that contains the gear he needs to go to work. If he ever looked tired or hesitant, she would drop him off at home.

Among other common logic questions:

  • Insurance for on-site dogs – which covers the cost of liability in the event the animal injures a person – can come through a professional organization, such as the school social worker organization, through the school’s existing insurance plan, Through the handler’s homeowner’s insurance, or through a supplemental plan, depending on various state and local laws.
  • Schools with therapy dogs should send forms home to parents to identify students with allergies or an aversion to dogs. They must do the same for employees, and operators work to avoid classrooms or places where people may be uncomfortable.

Holmquist-Johnson of Colorado State University selected dogs to train for therapy work. School operators should look for an animal — whether it’s a pure-bred puppy or a mixed-breed shelter dog — that is friendly and eager to engage, she said.
“Our number-one qualifier is that they have to love people,” she said.

Handler said that building on that foundation, well-trained dogs can serve a variety of purposes in schools. Some may greet kindergartners worried about leaving their parents on the first day of school. Some students may play with a student as a reward for better behavior in the classroom. Few can sit and listen as two students talk through their struggles with their school counselor, who serves as both a living mascot and a comforting acquaintance.

Sometimes teachers find themselves locked in the shadows after a stressful day, Merrill said.

He said, ‘Nowadays everyone’s weight has increased a lot. “Having them provides an outlet for everyone.”

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