'Another tool in the toolbox': Middle Tennessee district has therapy dogs in all schools

FSSD's first therapy dog, Mattie Grace
FSSD's first therapy dog, Mattie Grace

Schools in the Franklin Special School District have nine unique faculty members whose goal is to help to make each day a little brighter for students and teachers.

It all started in 2019 when Labradoodle therapy dog Mattie Grace first stepped into Johnson Elementary. At that time, Franklin educators said they never could have imagined the district would grow to include therapy dogs in all schools, but today, it's a reality.

The district first received Mattie Grace as a gift from a breeder in East Tennessee. Since then, dogs have been gifted, donated and rescued from shelters.

The nonprofit Nashville Retrieving Independence has supplied the majority of the district's dogs, officials said, noting that the animals don't meet the strict criteria required of service dogs, but can become certified as therapy dogs. They range in breeds and size and must hold the required certification.

“The plan was so overwhelmingly successful that we decided to implement the program in all of our schools," Director of Schools David Snowden said, adding that he planned to get one dog per year, but Mattie Grace's impact at Johnson Elementary forced them to fast-track the timeline.

Since the beginning of the program, the dogs have helped students and staff with a host of different issues. They've stopped anxiety attacks and served as a constant source of calm in what can be a nerve-racking place, officials say.

Each school has its own program, where dogs can rotate from room-to-room or be stationed in a location, like a library. At the end of each day, the dogs go home with their handlers.

“I think the students really love and take ownership of the dogs,” Snowden said. “Students read to the dogs, take them to use the bathroom and can earn special time with them. The other thing we found was how much therapy they really provide to the adults.”

“They're not miracle workers. They are just another tool in the toolbox to help the children in any way they can.”

Mattie Grace officially retired in December, but those who knew her best say she will always have a lasting impact on the lives of the students and faculty she touched during her time with the district.

At Franklin Special Schools, a dog's handler and principal make the final decision about a dog's retirement and it's based on a variety of factors, not including age and the number of years active, the district said. Health, efficiency and demeanor are key to making the determination, officials said.

The soon to be 7 year-old Mattie Grace is currently relaxing at the home of her handler in East Tennessee. The school board allows handlers the option to keep the dog if they reimburse the district for the cost of training, it said.

Mattie Grace's successor, Harley, is set to start working full time in the coming weeks. And while she could never fill the older dog's paw prints, school officials say Harley will continue the legacy of service as a caring, compassionate helper, one tail wag at a time.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Middle Tennessee district's therapy dog program aids students, staff