Dog days: School therapy dog programs promote social and academic skill sets

July 21, 2017 | Posted in: Elementary

A few days after my family recently welcomed a puppy, I watched as my 7-year-old son held the fuzzy bundle on his lap and read one of his favorite books out loud to the dog.

He pointed out things for the dog to look at in the illustrations and talked to the dog about what he was reading. The dog, a 9-week-old puppy, calmly listened for several minutes before trying to eat the book and scamper away with it.

This brief interaction gave me a glimpse into what many schools across the country have already realized: There are academic benefits that come along with having children interact with dogs.

And the benefits of having trained therapy dogs in schools go well beyond academics.

“Research has demonstrated that therapy dogs properly managed in the school setting can not only make a measurable difference in terms of gaining various skills such as reading enhancement, but also in contributing critically to emotional and relational development,” according to Charlotte’s Litter, a nonprofit organization that promotes therapy dog programs. “School counselors are finding that the presence of a therapy dog can decrease anxiety and enable students to work through issues such as anger management, bullying tendencies and other psycho/social problems.”

At the LaFayette Central School District in Onondaga County, therapy dogs were brought weekly to the elementary school library during the evening for students to read to and interact with.

“I know the kids looked forward to it,” said Kelly Fredericks, a LaFayette school psychologist who owns one of the dogs who would visit. “Dogs don’t judge you when you read.”

In addition to Fredericks’ trained therapy dog, she coordinates with a local network of therapy dog owners who also bring their pets to the library.

“By sitting down next to a dog and reading to the dog, all threats of being judged are put aside. The child relaxes, pats the attentive dog, and focuses on the reading. Reading improves because the child is practicing the skill of reading, building self-esteem, and associating reading with something pleasant,” according to Therapy Dogs International, a nonprofit organization that has a children’s reading program called Tail Waggin’ Tutors.

Fredericks has seen first-hand how the dogs have elevated the elementary students’ confidence levels and fluency. Fredericks has also brought her dog, Kyra, to spend time in the LaFayette Junior/Senior High School guidance office suite so students can drop in and visit with the dog.

“The kids love her, and they just light up,” Fredericks said.

Kyra also visits classrooms to help lower students’ stress levels, such as when a particularly tough exam is looming or a tragedy that occurred outside of school has in some way affected students.

“A therapy dog can lift moods in the classroom, often provoking laughter. The therapy dog is also there to offer friendship and a shoulder to lean on for students,” according to the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, a national therapy dog association.

Incorporating dogs into the school environment can also help improve behavioral issues and serve as a motivator for students to complete a task or classroom project.

The Guilderland Central School District has had a service dog program incorporated into aspects of its curriculum and student services for the past 14 years, said Catherine Ricchetti, a social worker with the Albany County school district.

The district’s service trained facility dogs – currently there are four – are built into student behavior plans as rewards and used to help students develop social skills. For example, a student who is having a difficult time making friends may be the one whose desk the dog is tethered to during a classroom visit.

“Some people worry the dogs could become a distraction, but it’s quite the opposite,” Ricchetti said.

Teachers and staff use time with the dogs as a reward for students completing a particular project or task or exhibiting positive behaviors. They find the promise of time with the dogs motivates students to focus on what they need to get done, she said.

In addition to reading, Ricchetti has also used the service dogs to help promote writing skills. For years, elementary students wrote letters to the school’s former service dog, Miss Siggy, who is now retired.

Mailboxes for Miss Siggy were located around the building so students could drop notes to her, and she (Ricchetti) would write back to each of them. Ricchetti said she would receive about 600 letters per year.

The letters gave Ricchetti a glimpse into what was happening in the students’ lives, and, if necessary, allowed her to intervene and provide support services or reach out to parents and make referrals for outside services.

“I would get a lot of fear-based letters,” she said, recalling that children sometimes wrote about their parents’ divorce or peer conflicts. “It’s a wonderful way to process emotions.”

Ricchetti owns another service dog who is involved in the schools and is considering re-instituting the letter writing program with him.

“You can get really creative on multiple levels,” Ricchetti said. “It’s just a great tool in general.”

With school out for summer, families with pets can encourage their children to read to their furry family members or write them a letter.

Don’t have a pet? Ask a friend or family member who does or check with local libraries to see if they have a therapy dog literacy program in place.

Nancy Cole is a public information specialist and grant writer for Capital Region BOCES. She lives in Onondaga County with her third- and fifth-grade sons and a puppy who enjoys listening to Elephant & Piggie books by Mo Willems.

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