When students return to B.F. Kitchen Elementary School in Loveland, Colo., they’ll find a familiar, furry face among the staff. Copper, a smiling golden retriever, will be on the job again this year, alongside his owner, school counselor Jennifer VonLintel.
Copper is not alone. From helping young children read to relieving the intense stress faced by university students, dogs are an increasingly familiar part of school programs across the country. Worries about allergies and safety fears are steadily giving way to higher reading scores and improved social interaction as administrators succumb to the charms of these lovable and loving assistants.
Copper gets around. He might be found comforting a child in grief group, resting his nonjudgmental head on the lap of a student learning to read, or integrating new kids into the pack at recess.
“He’s always happy to see you,” VonLintel said. “He’s a little on the goofy side, so just kind of creates that element of fun and acceptance.”
“He’s changed the culture of the school for the better.”
“We have consistently seen positive changes with those students who are working on social and emotional goals with him,” she added. “He’s changed the culture of the school for the better.”
The high schoolers in District 214 northwest of Chicago are also feeling the canine love. The district now has four therapy dogs; Buck, Midnight, Toby, and Junie, and they partner with a local hospital to bring in Caesar as needed. Junie paved the way. The gorgeous blonde retriever started at Prospect High School in 2012 and has been been a huge success. Students who visit Dr. Lynn Thornton’s counseling office don’t mind a little hair getting on their jeans when Junie climbs up and flops down beside them. And who could object to a sloppy kiss from young Toby, who is still learning the ropes at John Hershey High School.
There are no national or state certification standards for bringing dogs into schools. It’s really up to individual districts to give the paws up. There are many groups who train therapy animals and Pet Partners, one of the largest, now has 14,000 teams of handlers and dogs across the country, working in a variety of settings including schools.
“There’s been some interesting research that the presence of an animal can enhance pro-social skills among children,” said Mary Margaret Callahan, Pet Partners’ senior National Director of Program Development. “Whether that’s empathy, cooperation, volunteerism, all of those helpful skills, animals seem to have an impact on that.”
“It’s a lot easier to tell your secrets or talk about sad things to an animal, that’s not going to judge you, that loves you unconditionally.”
“It’s a lot easier to tell your secrets or talk about sad things to an animal, that’s not going to judge you, that loves you unconditionally,” Callahan said, which is why more and more are showing up in counseling offices. “The presence of animals lowers perceptions of stress, decreases our blood pressure and lessens anxiety, all of which can be really helpful in a variety of settings.”
Callahan says college campuses have seen the fastest growth of therapy dog use in recent years. Yale University’s law library has had a dog on hand since 2011 and their medical school welcomed Finn in 2014. Schools that may not want the responsibility of a year-round dog are benefitting from bringing them in periodically, at high stress times like exams week.
Brown University’s Alpert Medical School brought in two golden retrievers, a Wheaten terrier and Lhasa Apso last December for some pre-exams stress relief. The students traded belly aches for belly scratches and could could not stop smiling as they ran their hands through the dogs’ soft fur.
Bringing dogs into schools can have a positive impact far beyond temporary comfort and stress relief. The ASPCA has been donating to A Fair Shake for Youth since 2013. The program teaches New York City middle school kids to train and care for dogs using positive reinforcement, a concept many children may not be familiar with.
“The connection between some forms of animal cruelty, domestic violence, and child abuse is clear,” said Stacy Wolf, senior vice president of the ASPCA’s Anti-Cruelty Group. “Learning to care for animals and treat them with respect reduces the likelihood of cruelty and neglect and also sets the framework for positive relationships with people and the community.”
If you have aspirations to be a therapy dog handler, there are a few things to think about, Callahan says.
- Is your animal going to enjoy this work? Do they like meeting new people or do they prefer sitting in your lap at home? If your dog is afraid of strangers, or unfamiliar smells and noises, a school would not be a comfortable place for them.
- Is your dog going to inspire confidence? They need to be well-trained and consistently responsive to your queues. Your dog might be social, but knocking a child down in excitement is not going to fly.