Therapy dogs add comfort for students at area schools

Fifth-grader Jackson Chalsky pets therapy dog Luna while Logan Letterman and Amir Coward, also fifth-grade students at Star Hill Elementary, work in their small group. The students work on study and work management skills with school counselor Gina Zanella-Sample, with Luna as support. Submitted Photo

BRIDGEVILLE — Sam loves coming to work at Woodbridge Middle School, principal Tara Downes said — “and the kids truly love seeing him,” she added.

Sam, an 11-year-old golden retriever, recently joined the school as a therapy dog.

“The students are always asking for him. They have said that he lifts their spirits, and he makes them smile,” she said. “He just absolutely loves the attention.”

Ms. Downes and Sam are just one example of schools throughout the state that are bringing therapy dogs in to assist with academics, as well as the social-emotional component of school.

While public schools and charters are closed through May 15, per Gov. John Carney’s order that Delawareans stay at home due to COVID-19, this program has been suspended for the time being.

Ms. Downes and Sam received their training through PAWS for People, a Newark-based nonprofit that seeks to connect people to therapeutic visits from pets.

“We know there are scientific benefits — we know that it lowers blood pressure, releases endorphins that make you happier, reduces isolation, helps encourage people to be more social,” said Clarice Ritchie, director of events and operations at PAWS for People.

When people have a dog with a “gentle and affectionate” personality, they go through PAWS for training and certification, like Ms. Downes.

PAWS has 530 active volunteers, and are in 43 different schools, said Kate Rosenthal, site manager for PAWS.

She and Ms. Ritchie agreed that the pet therapy model is becoming more accepted.

“There was a lot of concern in the beginning about allergies,” Ms. Ritchie said. “I think the schools, in recognizing the benefits, have come up with ways to make sure that children with allergies are safe, but have pets for children who need them also.”

School leaders said they communicated with parents and had district leadership support for introducing dogs to the school environment. At Woodbridge Middle, Ms. Downes planned to have Sam come in every day.

“It just overall lifts the spirits in the building, and the transitions [between class] because they’re all focusing on him and coming over and petting him and making him feel welcome, and making themselves feel better as they transition to class,” she said.

Sam will also be around more regularly during testing time, to help relieve test anxiety, she said.

At Star Hill Elementary, school counselor Gina Zanella-Sample brings her 2-year-old dog, Luna, as a resource for class visits and sitting in during small groups.

Earlier this month, Luna was enjoying belly rubs as CHAMP — a group of fifth-grade boys — worked on improving their study skills and work habits.

“It’s just nice to have her. She’s friendly. She’s nice,” noted Logan Letterman, a fifth-grade student.

Sam will be around more regularly during testing time at Woodbridge Middle School, to help relieve test anxiety. Submitted Photo

“She makes us calm down,” Amir Coward, a fifth-grader, added.

Jackson Puchalsky said “Heck yes,” he looks forward to seeing Luna.

“She’s very fluffy, and she helps you,” he said.

The students hit on some of the points that Ms. Zanella-Sample is hoping they — and the other students who benefit from Luna — take away from having a therapy dog at the school.

There are six social-emotional competencies Delaware is trying to embed into curriculum, she said. Those include skills such as self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making.

“Really, pet therapy helps with every single competency,” she said.

The school has posters up that explain how to approach Luna, which Ms. Zanella-Sample said, has also taught students about personal space and boundaries.

She noted that the biggest benefit is emotional regulation for students.

“Whether they’re upset or angry, worried, sad — any big emotion — she helps them calm down,” she said.

Patrik Williams, superintendent of Smyrna School District, agreed with that.

This year, Smyrna School District partnered with PAWS to introduce therapy dogs in seven of the eight schools.

“Years ago, when our assistant superintendent Debra Judy was the principal at Sunnyside [Elementary], she had Frank the Tank, a bulldog trained as a therapy dog,” Mr. Williams said. “He was such a rousing success with all of the students that over the years we entertained the possibility of moving into a partnership to bring that opportunity to many of our schools.”

Over the summer, PAWS reached out to the district and they began putting together a plan to bring as many therapy dogs as possible to the school.

Each school addresses their students’ needs differently, Mr. Williams said.

“Some will use the program to reinforce academic learning and reading. In other schools, in emotional-support classrooms, PAWS dogs will go into those specifically to help with anxiety and students who have experienced trauma,” he said. “It helps them learn self-regulation.”

Volunteers assist with the PAWS for Reading program. Dogs, and their volunteers, visit schools to work one on one with students who are “emerging, struggling or reluctant” readers.

“Dogs listen — they’re non-judgemental and passive, but they can be active listeners. They’ll follow your finger if you point to a page, they’ll tilt their head,” Ms. Rosenthal said. “[Students] are not being corrected or judged. It’s an opportunity for kids to practice in a safe space.”

Though the dogs seem like they’re better suited to be used at the elementary or middle level, high school students — and adults — benefit from the therapy dogs, too, Mr. Williams said.

“It’s amazing to see tough 16- and 17-year-olds melt when Rosie [a miniature dachshund] gets in their lap and calms them down,” Mr. Williams said.

Mary Ann Noel, a psychology teacher at Caesar Rodney High School, brings her goldendoodle Maddie to school two days a week. Maddie even has her own CRHS badge.

“[With] pressure that’s out there in society today on seniors, it just gives them a moment to stop and breathe,” she said. “They’re learning how to budget their schedule now, and being able to go to classes, get the homework done, maybe work a job, maybe do an activity or sport or club — they’re balancing it all out. And sometimes it’s high stress.”

Ms. Noel saw the benefits of it for herself, she added.

“Life is so busy and it’s hectic and crazy. When I would go home after a full day of just being busy, I had these two wonderful golden retrievers that would greet me at the door,” she said. “And I thought, ‘Why wouldn’t someone — kids, adults — want the ability to be surrounded by loving, compassionate, gentle dogs?’ And it has really worked.”

Ms. Noel added that some people might think having a dog in a classroom or the school could be a distraction, but she said she’s seen the opposite.

“At a 7, 8:30 a.m. start time, it really does make a difference that she’s in my classroom with me,” she said. “The kids often will come in just so tired and then [there’s] that alertness … If they get distracted for a minute when Maddie’s in there, they’re back on task. It’s a good distraction.”

Ms. Zanella-Sample at Star Hill said the dogs don’t judge on background, ability or experiences.

“We hear stories every day from children who are dealing with things in their home life that we can’t imagine and then we’re asking them to walk into a classroom and ask them to focus on reading and writing and math,” Ms. Ritchie said. “Pet therapy is providing a bridge from the situations they’re coming from and their goals in the school to help them be in a better place to accept and learn.”