Don't let the wet nose fool you. Dogs are authorities in both solace and empowerment. That's why more and more therapy dogs are showing up for class in schools and on college campuses.
The touch of soft fur can brighten even the loneliest child. Walking or petting the school dog infuses calm when a student of any age feels agitated or anxious. Leaning into a dog's soft ears is an excellent antidote when learning to read seems like a daunting task. A waiting school dog can give a reluctant student the oomph to get to school. Just looking at a dog increases oxytocin, which acts as a transmitter in the brain and promotes social bonding.
Miss Siggy, the full-time therapy dog in Guilderland schools, has made such an impact the district recently authorized seven new therapy dogs to join the pack.
The pups are being purchased through a donation from the Guilderland Central Teachers Association and a grant from The Community Foundation of the Greater Capital District. A pack of dog lovers held an evening fundraiser and students collected pennies to pitch in.
Not a cent from tax revenues was used. Teachers own the dogs and pay for their food and veterinary expenses.
Guilderland school social worker Catherine Ricchetti began the therapy dog project a dozen years ago when Miss Siggy, her goldendoodle, first wowed the little ones at Pine Bush Elementary.
Dogs are trained to work with angry or troubled kids, to help students during fire drills, in crowded hallways, in crisis situations and with reading, says Ricchetti, who has provided school dog training in Cohoes, Green Island and Chatham.
People come first when mapping a dog plan, Ricchetti says, from the needs of students and teachers with allergies or asthma to those who fear dogs. She has not had a single complaint about allergy or asthma problems with Miss Siggy.
Over the years, Miss Siggy has calmed hysterical students, worked with groups of children in counseling and helped avoid the need to use restraints, Ricchetti says. After a horrific homicide claimed the lives of two children in the district a year ago, Miss Siggy comforted school children for a week; she then slept all weekend.
As Miss Siggy walks toward retirement, she is being replaced in her duties by loveable labradoodle Willow, owned by teacher Keith Van Wagenen. Newbies at other schools are Cinnamon, owned by reading teacher Sandra Stedge, and Lula, owned by teacher Amy Martin. Ricchetti will get a dog for Lynwood Elementary School. More puppy love to come.
Martin, like the other dog owners, makes sure Lula has time alone each day in her crate or on her bed so the puppy can de-stress after a long day on the job getting to know her "school pack." Lula delivers letters to students in her collar. They write to her with concerns.
When a second-grader was having a difficult time getting to school, Van Wagenen started meeting him at the door with Willow, talking and then asking the youngster to work with Willow on some commands. "You can't even imagine how happy this kid is now going to class," Van Wagenen says. Before, that, "a lot of mornings I saw him in tears."
Older students flourish with canine time, too. Robin McAleese, a SUNY Oswego mental health counselor, has dogs brought to an outdoor area on campus during exam periods, and at the beginning of the semester, when new students are often missing their own pets. Three hundred students came to the last dog visitation, says McAleese, a member of United University Professions, a NYSUT higher ed affiliate.
At SUNY Albany, the Disability Resource Center sets up therapy dog visits four times a semester. "Based on the survey results we've gotten, 85–90 percent of students say it reduces stress," says Carrie Snyder, UUP member and assistant center director.
Two Alfred University graduate students recently studied the use of therapy dogs on younger students in Pioneer, Avoca and Wayne school districts in Western New York, under the guidance of Cris Lauback, a retired school psychologist of the Owego- Apalachin Teachers Association and now associate psychology professor at Alfred University.
The Paws for Intervention analysis included interviews, questionnaires and research on the power of dogs to help humans in a school setting, and what Lauback calls "dramatic findings."
For example, a student who had missed 36 days in the first half of the school year alone — coupled with 93 days of tardiness — was given a job as a therapy dog trainee. The second half of that school year, and into the 2014–15 year, the student missed only three school days. Three struggling eighth-grade students were set to move to an alternative school, but after becoming trainers for a new therapy dog, none had to be moved. Another student had a 94 percent decrease in behavior referrals over two years.
"The therapy dogs have a soothing, calming effect on my students. Even my students with severe ADHD seem to be ‘grounded' by the dogs and are able to sit quietly and appropriately. They look forward to the visits as they groom, pet and snuggle with the dogs," says Ingrid Drumgold, special education teacher at Rotterdam Academy I and a member of the Capital Region BOCES Faculty Association.
"All my students read well below grade level and they build their confidence and reading fluency when reading to the dogs," Drumgold says. She uses dogs once a week after teaching students how to interact with trained golden retrievers Meeca and Gracie.
Therapy dogs have been a salvation after the most grievous of tragedies. In the weeks and months after the 2012 Sandy Hook, Conn., shooting, dogs helped school children deal with their grief.
The dogs are still softening hearts. Last year, "Charlotte's Litter" was created in honor of dog lover Charlotte Helen Bacon, one of the young children who lost their lives that day. The online resource provides a practical guide for school administrators and educators to use dogs in schools.
"We do all this, to honor our beautiful Charlotte, a little girl who aspired to be a veterinarian and loved dogs with a passion. ... We do all this, to assist families and educators, bring crucial social and emotional aspects of children's development to the forefront and be a proactive force. We do all this, with a passion," write Joel and Joann Bacon.
"Bringing Therapy Dogs to Your School, A Practical Guide for School Administrators and Educators," is available at http://charlotteslitter.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Educator_Resource.pdf.
PAWS for Intervention, the Alfred University analysis of therapy dogs in schools, is at www.nyaspbiz/conf_2014_files/Lupton_Fisk_PAWS.pdf.
Visit www.gooddogsgreatlisteners.com to learn about the book Good Dogs, Great Listeners: The Story of Charlotte, Lily and the Litter about a young girl who wants to be a vet but doesn’t like to read. The Dogs of Newtown is a nonfiction book written by student Guy Bacon, Charlotte’s brother, which uses photographs to share the story of the many therapy dogs that came to Newtown schools after the tragedy and how they helped students to slowly heal.
For help setting up a school therapy dog program, call Catherine Ricchetti at 518-357-2770, ext. 3601.