January/February 2019 Issue
December 15, 2018

These schools have gone to the dogs

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: This school year is the first with a therapy dog for Kate Tymeson, an elementary teacher and member of the Guilderland Central Teachers Association. Olive, an 8-month-old labradoodle, works with several classes in the building. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

Olive has a black button nose so shiny it would make a snowman jealous. Shelby was rescued from a shelter. Brody gets called to the principal’s office every day — but it’s no big deal because that’s where he works now.

Who let these dogs out? Mutts and pedigrees are sniffing and pawing their way into the textured lexicon of social-emotional learning (SEL). Ask the little boy from a distressing home life who now lights up when he comes into school, wrapping himself in the fur of unconditional love; or the third-graders learning self control by watching a dog model behavioral instructions. Dogs are used for counseling, speech therapy, reading, trauma response, social-emotional learning and test anxiety.

The New York City Department of Education announced it will expand its comfort dog program from 45 to 60 schools by the end of this school year. That leap follows an increase in 2017 from seven schools to 30.

The DOE works with each school to adopt a rescue animal that has been evaluated by North Shore Animal League America. Schools can also receive training in the Mutt-i-grees curriculum.

The comfort dog program kicked off at Shell Bank Intermediate School in Brooklyn. The school began using the Mutt-i-grees program to focus on respect and empathy.

“I was looking for something different for SEL,” said Terri Ahearn, school principal and former special education teacher. When shelter dogs were invited to the school so students could interact with the animals, United Federation of Teachers member Denise Atwood fell for a soft gray-and-white border collie rescue. She adopted the dog, named her Shelby (after the school), and started bringing her to work.

Banksy, Bruno and Molly then joined the lineup, working as therapy dogs, hall monitors and calming canines with teachers, school counselors and social workers.

Brody is joined in the principal’s office by Laney, a four-legged pal who assists school secretary and UFT member Kieran O’Sullivan.

A trainer works with all the dogs. Ahearn said seven families have also adopted shelter dogs after parents saw the positive effects on their children.

“Molly is used to minimize shutting down and withdrawing for a child with autistim. It used to take this student 30–40 minutes to speak up, but with the dog, she pets it, and she starts talking openly,” said counselor Michael Hanna. “To get a student to open up and communicate is important."

Typically, a teacher, school health care professional or staff member becomes a dog’s owner. They make sure students who have a fear of dogs are not in contact with the animal unless they choose.

Students help train the dogs, learning patience. They attend classes in animal behavior. They discuss feelings and emotions. They are given tasks to help care for the dog, learning responsibility.

Studies have shown students who help with duties for the dog dramatically improve their attendance. One child at Shell Bank went from 47 percent to 89 percent and is now in a veterinary studies program in high school.

“We have kids with all different types of needs,” said Atwood, who retired but still works at Shell Bank in after-school programs and as a substitute teacher. “We had a kid who wouldn’t get off the bus. They put Shelby on the bus and he walked him off."

The Guilderland Central School District in the Capital Region is a study in the success of using dogs in schools.

Kate Tymeson has been an elementary teacher for 19 years, but only became the owner of a school dog this year. Olive lopes around her classroom with 40 pounds of labradoodle love.

“After enough years in the district, seeing the needs that kids come to school with, I thought it would relieve some of their stress,” said Tymeson, a member of the Guilderland Central Teachers Association. Olive also works with school counselor Jenny Riley and her students twice a week.

Olive is kept on leash, and she is hypoallergenic, as are all of the dogs used in Guilderland schools.

“They look out for her. It gets them thinking about someone else. That’s not easy when you’re 5,” said kindergarten teacher Christina Ryan.

GCTA member Catherine Ricchetti is a school social worker who first began the use of therapy dogs in her district, which authorized seven more therapy dogs in 2016. Ricchetti was honored for her work with animal-assisted education as NY State Social Worker of the Year from the National Association of Social Workers New York Chapter.

Brain research shows that dogs can improve behavioral and physical health in humans due to a brain chemical called oxytocin, which is linked to a desire to be more socially connected, Ricchetti said.

”Looking into a dog’s eyes increases the oxytocin in a person’s brain. When we think of a child who is struggling to connect socially, who is sad, anxious, depressed, new to the school — we give them access to a dog so we can increase their desire to connect socially."