Why schools (and other places) are going to the dogs

·4 min read

May 1—Therapy dogs in schools are seeing a surge in popularity, something teachers and therapists hope local school districts will consider in the near future.

A therapy dog can serve as an aid to support students — not to mention provide a little fun, said Jodie Koranda, a teacher at Rock Creek Elementary School.

"Therapy dogs have become my passion," she said. "Numerous studies have found that literacy skills can be improved from reading to dogs and that children gain confidence in reading and report an increased love of reading. Therapy dogs can also provide stability and comfort to children who are living in poverty or abusive homes."

Bella, a 14-year-old grief therapy dog at Fleming and Billman Funeral Home in Ashtabula, was "a tremendous help" to people who were grieving, said Bob Billman of Fleming and Billman Funeral Home. Because of her age, Bella is retired now.

In her younger years, Bella, a Golden Doodle, was loving and playful at home but when a grieving family walked through the door, her demeanor changed completely. Instinctively, she approached slowly, offering a soft, furry head to pet, Billman said.

"People loved her; they still ask about her," he said. "She was wonderful — more than we even anticipated."

In nursing homes, interaction with therapy dogs has been shown to reduce blood pressure, provide physical stimulation and assist with pain management.

A visiting therapy dog in schools promotes greater self-esteem and focused interaction with other students and teachers, Koranda said.

Before COVID-19 pandemic, Beth Kennelly of Geneva brought her therapy dog, a pit bull named Fred, to the Henderson Library and allowed children to read to Fred.

The children's librarian, Karen Phillips, said the program has been on hold but the library will be having the therapy dogs back on July 24 for Santa Paws, a Christmas in July event.

"The obvious benefit is the children can read out loud to the dogs in a safe environment, but it also gives the opportunity for kids to learn how to handle dogs," Phillips said. "The handler will tell them about the dog and where they can safety touch the dog."

Animal Friends in Pittsburgh, Pa., has a therapy pet certification program, Therapets, according to the company's website. Last year, 88 potential dogs participated in Therapets prep classes.

Dogs are in training for several weeks, and then tested for certification as a therapy dog. The trainer then brings the dog to school to meet with students and become familiar with school surroundings. The program is on hold because of COVID-19 restrictions, according to its website.

In general, local school officials like the idea of therapy dogs.

According to Grand Valley Local Schools Board of Education's written policy, the board recognizes that there are many occasions when animals are present on district property and many reasons for those animals' presence.

"Animals are commonly utilized by teachers during classroom presentations and often housed in classrooms and other locations on campus. Additionally, employees, students, parents, vendors, and other members of the public may be accompanied at school by a service animal in accordance with federal and state law and this policy. This policy applies to all animals on district property, including service animals," the policy reads.

GV Superintendent William Nye said, "I would think under the proper supervision and legitimate purpose, which would include complete safe guard measures, we would consider this program."

Ashtabula Area City School District's policy also supports therapy and service animals at school. There are procedures to follow for the safety of staff, students and the animals, School Board President Christine Seuffert said.

"It has been refreshing to see the interaction with the current therapy dogs on the AACS campuses," she said. "Many times people are better able to respond to animals. Learning the protocols when relating to service or therapy animals will serve our students well in their future endeavors."

Koranda believes therapy dogs will benefit the growing emotional needs of today's learners. She is so sold on the idea that she will be welcoming a German Shepherd puppy named Benelli into her home. Benelli comes from a breeder who had a therapy dog.

"She helped me pick the puppy and the puppy will begin obedience training in May," she said. "I will pay for all training. The end result will be a certified therapy dog ... She is an amazing pup and, if approved for classroom use, will covered by a $2 million liability insurance policy while at work with me."

Koranda understands some school officials may have reservations about having therapy dogs in schools because of allergies, pet maintenance and fear of dogs, but research supports the pros of therapy dogs over the cons.

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