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February 1, 2018
Vol. 60
No. 2

Why Schools Are Going to the Dogs

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Having canines in classrooms is "a real mood changer." Discover how therapy dogs are helping with everything from trauma to reading interventions to school climate.

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Social-emotional learning
1121 Feature Dog Ed Update
The usually composed 8th grader, described as a "gentle giant" who stands at a towering 6′5", "was having a bad day," says school counselor Christy Bixman. His mom was dying of cancer and his girlfriend had just broken up with him.
Unable to cope, he punched a locker and screamed at his teacher. Bixman, who brings a therapy dog to Van Devender Middle School in Parkersburg, West Virginia, intervened. "The second he saw the dog, he started sobbing," she recalls. He wrapped his arms around Winston, the black lab mix, and hugged him and cried.
"I gave him a couple of minutes before I asked any questions," says Bixman. But once he got himself together, "he opened up and sang like a canary."
"When we got done talking, he looked at me, exhaled, and said, ‘I'm so happy we've got the dogs here.’"

A Paw-sitive Match

Bixman is happy to have Winston and her other dog, a golden retriever named Amelia, at school, too. She's one of many educators using therapy dogs to provide students with cognitive, physiological, and social and emotional support. The practice of using canine assistants in schools for mental health is becoming more widespread, says Matia Finn-Stevenson, a research scientist at Yale University. Having man's best friend around is also boosting morale for students and staff alike.
When educators think of therapy dogs, they generally think of "visiting dogs" that come to school once a week with their handlers (owners) for reading interventions in the library or for brief visits with kids, says Finn-Stevenson.
More formal programs like R.E.A.D. (Reading Education Assistance Dogs), through Intermountain Therapy Animals, pair trained literacy support volunteers and their dogs with schools at no cost. Among other benefits, reading aloud to dogs has been shown to improve oral reading fluency more than reading to a peer (see "Effects of Reading with Adult Tutor/Therapy Dog Teams on Elementary Students' Reading Achievement and Attitudes" in Society & Animals). Struggling readers tend to relax around therapy dogs, who offer a nonjudgmental ear, building their confidence and skills over time.
Pet Partners, another national nonprofit, lets schools post volunteer opportunities (aligned to their goals for pet therapy) and matches them with local volunteers. Alliance of Therapy Dogs also deploys fully insured volunteer teams to schools at no cost.

Fido on Faculty

For five years, Jennifer VonLintel has been bringing her golden retriever, Copper, to B.F. Kitchen Elementary School in Loveland, Colorado. The counselor uses Copper for both animal-assisted interventions and activities, and since he's become a permanent fixture at the school, she's able to tailor the program to students’ needs.
For example, Copper takes part in an intervention with a small group of students who are learning coping skills to manage anxiety. In one session, students think about the dog's worries, like "not being able to find a bone he buried," and discuss the body language he might exhibit as a result, such as circling around the house and whining. Then the conversation shifts to where students feel anxiety in their own bodies. "We're working toward specific goals and measuring results of that particular intervention," says VonLintel.
Animal-assisted activities, on the other hand, have positive outcomes but don't target a specific student. To increase attendance at an after-school activity like Outdoors Club, Copper might tag along and "help dig in the soil and chase away the garden rabbit." Or during recess, he may walk around with a "pack" of students to reengage children who are playing alone.
Copper is also a "highly requested" behavior and academic incentive. "Teachers submit names of students who have done outstanding work or made a really good decision as far as being responsible, respectful, or excelling—which ties into our PBIS model," says VonLintel. As a reward, they might get to take Copper on a walk or teach him a new trick.

Crossing Your Ts

To help counselors get similar programs up and running, VonLintel shares resources on schooltherapydogs.org as well as the School Therapy Dogs Facebook group. There's a checklist of items to consider, including gaining administrative support, choosing and training the right dog, addressing pet allergies and fears, and setting schoolwide expectations, she says.
Before presenting her case to the school board, Bixman made sure her "t's [were] crossed and i's [were] dotted." She compiled a binder that included research on therapy dogs in school settings; parent notification flyers; letters of recommendation from a trainer; and her dogs’ ID badges, shot records, and test scores from the AKC Canine Good Citizen test.
Bixman also called the parents of children with a pet or dander allergy listed on their health records. There are clear-cut protocols for basic allergens, explains VonLintel, such as keeping the dog's environment and equipment clean (vest, collars, and leashes) and using antidander spray. Bixman offered accommodations, such as meeting students in an alternate location, crating the dog during sessions, or vacuuming her office beforehand. "I didn't want any student to feel like, ‘Now I can't come see the counselor because she has a dog and I'm allergic,’ " she says. However, every parent was supportive and agreed that simple hygiene like handwashing would be sufficient.
Before gaining approval to bring Copper to school, VonLintel took him through AKC's S.T.A.R. Puppy and Canine Good Citizen programs, in addition to more advanced work for therapy dogs. He also earned his facility dog designation to learn how to respond to situations that are unique to a school building. For example, "When you have lunches lined up in the hallway, [you have to] make sure that the dog knows to not poke his head in everybody's bag," says VonLintel. "Or what happens when a fire alarm goes off, or there are 30 basketballs bouncing in a gym?"
Likewise, students need to learn how to appropriately interact with a therapy dog. How should they approach the dog? Do they need to ask for permission before petting him? How many students can surround the dog at once, so he doesn't get overwhelmed? Ironing out details like these can reduce the element of risk. "You really need to make sure that the dog and the students are safe in the environment," VonLintel explains.
Being in a school is "very tough on the dog," she adds. To make sure Copper doesn't burn out, she limits his schedule to Mondays and Tuesdays and has a therapy dog team come in on Fridays for additional interventions. She also gives Copper frequent breaks and pays attention to when he is done with an interaction. Scratching at his vest, for instance, can indicate a low level of stress. Or he might get up from a session and walk to the "dog-only" zone behind VonLintel's desk—where he has a water bowl, toys, and a bed to rest. Keeping him comfortable ensures "he enjoys this type of work for a long time."

A Calming Influence

To prevent the tail from wagging the dog, schools must determine why they want a therapy dog on-site, says VonLintel. "What is your goal for this particular program? Is it a literacy goal? Is it to improve overall school climate? Are there social and emotional goals that you want to work on?"
Bixman, the counselor in West Virginia, wanted to see how her 450 students—90 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch—would respond to the calming presence of a therapy dog. Many of her middle school boys have anger issues and a "short fuse," she explains.
"My office has always been a cool-off spot, but I thought if I have a dog here, they might cool down even faster. I wanted to see what the possibilities were." Last year, with hard-won approval from the school board and a supportive principal, she started bringing in her therapy dogs—rotating Winston and Amelia each day.
"They go everywhere I go," says Bixman, from individual counseling sessions to group lunch bunches to classroom lessons. She's noticed that with the dogs around, more boys are visiting her. "I don't know if they think it's cool now—they'll just tell their bros, ‘I'm coming down to see Ms. Bixman's dogs,’ " she says. "But [then] they end up staying for a session."
Petting a dog for even a few minutes can positively affect our brain chemistry, according to research, increasing oxytocin levels and reducing the stress hormone cortisol. For kids who have experienced trauma, the dogs can be incredibly comforting. That may be one reason Copper is called upon to assist with grief counseling after the death of a student, staff member, or parent in the district.
"I'm able to adapt the [research] into my work at school with some kids who have significant trauma histories," adds VonLintel. "We're able to really start to calm down the brain and introduce that connection."
"It just seems like it's been speeding up the process," says Bixman. "Like it lets students’ minds go to another place while they're petting them or brushing them."

Empathy in the City

New York City's Department of Education (DOE) is piloting a program that lets educators adopt a dog from a local shelter and bring it to school to work with students and staff to improve school climate and contribute to social and emotional learning (SEL).
"This is a counseling support strategy," explains Michael Batista, senior administrator of the Office of Counseling Support Programs. School counselors and social workers are encouraged to use the dogs in individual and group sessions, for crisis intervention, bereavement assistance, and behavioral de-escalation.
The New York DOE partnered with North Shore Animal League America, which identifies dogs with good temperaments and provides basic obedience training. A team of five staff members share responsibility for the dog during school hours, so it's not a distraction to the owner, says Batista. The dog might rest in an administrator's office, enjoy walks with a designated teacher, spend time in a special education classroom, or work with a speech therapist. But each dog has a formal schedule, "so it's not just passed around from person to person or class to class," notes Jaye Murray, executive director of the Office of Counseling Support Programs.
So far, the dogs are making quite an impression: "What we see with children is that their empathy skills really get sharpened and exercised [by] taking care of the dog," observes Murray. "Lots of times, young people can see in an animal what they can't see in their classmates. And they express a certain kind of empathy, understanding, and compassion that might [be] difficult at other times due to different things going on in their lives."
Hands-on interaction with a full-time therapy dog is especially beneficial for children with autism and developmental disabilities, says Finn-Stevenson. "Those kids gravitate to [the] dog," she explains. "A lot of times, those are the kids that other children pick on or alienate. But when we talk about dogs and bring dogs into the classroom, those kinds of differences between kids disappear. All the kids seem to get along—and that's a wonderful thing."
More than 4,000 schools, including some in New York City, are using Mutt-i-grees, a preK–12 SEL curriculum based on the human–animal bond. Developed by Finn-Stevenson, the curriculum has a dual goal: "to encourage awareness of shelter pets and enhance children's social and emotional competencies."
The lessons don't require a therapy dog to be on hand, the researcher explains. "The changes in hormones that occur when you pet a dog also occur when you watch videos of a dog, think about a dog, or read books about a dog."

A Real Mood Changer

New York City's program has been so popular that the DOE expanded it from 7 to nearly 40 elementary, middle, and high schools this year. The comfort dogs have been a boon for staff, too.
"Principals are saying that they're helping with teacher morale," Murray notes. "When teachers are having bad days, they feel like they can go to the dogs. Or when principals are stressed out, they have the dogs to go to."
Bixman's colleagues are drawn to the dogs as well. Sometimes, teachers come down during their planning periods and ask, "Do you have a minute for me to sit down with the dogs?"
Murray expects teacher retention to increase at schools where a therapy dog is present, especially among the owners. "Teachers are happy they can bring their dog to school," she says. "It's a real plus."
In New York City, the only obstacle thus far has been supply and demand. "The biggest challenge is that we have more schools that want to participate than we have dogs and capacity right now," says Murray.
"Having the dog in school is a real mood changer," she asserts. "It brings everybody down to more of a kind, gentle, and collaborative space."
VonLintel agrees. "I think the overall climate of the school has changed since Copper has been working here. When students see him in the morning, I'm pretty much invisible, which I'm very OK with. It's always, ‘Copper's here! Good morning, Copper!’ Immediately their faces light up."
Seeing the dogs is the highlight of the school day, echoes Bixman. "If I don't have one [with me], the first thing students say is, ‘Where are the dogs?’

Sarah McKibben is the editor in chief of Educational Leadership magazine.

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