Best (practices) in show: Therapy dogs in schools

Educators must focus on the comfort of students and the dogs to get best results

Therapy dogs in schools can perform wonders: The animals relieve students’ stress, help kids learn to read, and even boost test scores and attendance.

To reach these goals, educators must focus as much on the animals’ needs as they do on the comfort of students, says Jennifer VonLintel, a counselor. Her golden retriever, Copper, serves as a therapy dog at B.F. Kitchen Elementary School in Colorado’s Thompson School District.

“Therapy dogs can do great things, but administrators need to have someone running the program who understands risk and stress levels for the dogs,” says VonLintel, who operates the website School Therapy Dogs. “A school can be a complex environment for a dog.”

Administrators should start by bringing in outside volunteers with dogs, rather than having the school adopt a dog of its own. Administrators should be wary of handlers who use shock collars or other negative training methods because they can stress the dogs and prevent them from bonding with students.

Volunteers should first work with a small group of students and teachers. At the same time, educators should begin planning what activities and interventions therapy dogs will be involved in, and where the work will take place. “A lot of people bring in dogs, but they don’t have goals for the program,” VonLintel says.

When schools adopt their own dogs, the animals typically become the pets of a staff member. But dogs cannot work the long hours that their humans do, so owners must give their animals some days off during the week.

Copper, among his many achievements, has boosted student attendance. When staff spot that a student often misses the same day of the week, VonLintel will arrange to have the child spend time with the dog on that day. “I put them in charge of getting his water or putting his working vest on him,” she says. “We’ve seen increased attendance on those and all other days. Kids don’t want to miss days they’re working with Copper.”

Overcoming fears

Administrators with canines in their classrooms can take proactive steps if students are afraid of dogs or have allergies. Jaymie Bral, the assistant principal at Storm Lake Middle School in Iowa’s Storm Lake Community School District, began bringing his goldendoodle, Dory, to work as a therapy dog this school year.

At registration, parents were asked to identify children who had allergies or fears. Bral made sure to keep Dory away from such students, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t spent some time with the dog.

“The majority of kids who said they had fears or allergies are petting her; they’re in her presence,” says Bral, who, along with his wife, trained Dory for her therapy certification. “These students have figured out Dory is not a threat, and they are overcoming their fears.”

Bral, who manages discipline at his school, mainly uses Dory to help calm students who are having emotional outbursts, particularly those who have suffered trauma. When students are sent to Bral, Dory is often by his side (at least she is on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays).

“When students get angry, they’re using the back parts of their brain,” he says. “The dog gets them to shift back to their frontal cortex, where their thinking is and where they’re more rational.”

Therapy dogs in schools: The animals don’t judge

Dogs don’t only help students relax. Teachers and staff in Dyersburg City Schools in Tennessee will often seek out one of the district’s four therapy dogs to recharge.

Neel Durbin, director of Dyersburg City Schools in Tennessee, has brought in several therapy dogs to help students and teachers relax.
Neel Durbin, director of Dyersburg City Schools in Tennessee, has brought in several therapy dogs to help students and teachers relax.

“When our staff members get stressed out, they will come in and pet the dog and say they feel much better,” says Neel Durbin, the director of schools. “It’s amazing, and it was totally unexpected.”

Related storyTherapy dog digs up school testing gains

Dyersburg’s therapy dog team includes Bear, a German shepherd, which can be considered an aggressive breed. It means Bear spends all of his time with Durbin, usually at the high school.

“He’s the most gentle dog you’ve ever seen,” Durbin says. “When I walk into a building and have any of the dogs with me, I can ask any student which dog it is and they know. And I ask, ‘Who am I?’ and it’s like the sound of crickets.”

Dyersburg also trains therapy dogs for other school systems. The work is done at the district’s alternative high school by students who have earned the privilege. “These kids have made some bad decisions, but the dogs don’t care,” Durbin says. “The dogs are nonjudgmental and provide these kids with unconditional love.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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