Therapy dogs calm students and staff

Friday, September 25, 2020
Skye, one of 4 therapy dogs that visits Alta-Aurelia schools this year, is pictured in Ashton Peterson’s 1st grade class at Alta Elementary School. Skye’s owner, Classroom Associate Roxanne Peterson, is pictured on the left and teacher Ashton Peterson on the right.

Dogs in the classroom are more than welcome in Alta-Aurelia schools, especially now in the age of COVID.

Just a short time into the school year, students and staff already consider the four therapy dogs in school as family members and know them by name - Milo and Liberty in Aurelia, and Skye and Goldie in Alta. Their breeds are Goldendoodles and a Golden Retriever.

Ten-month-old therapy dog Skye, a Goldendoodle, roams around all day in Ashton Peterson’s first grade class two days each week at Alta Elementary School as she comforts, befriends and amuses students. “Therapy dogs can be very beneficial for all students,” Ashton said. “If a student is having a bad day, therapy dogs can be there to support them and help them feel some sort of comfort. Therapy dogs can help to lift moods in classrooms and put students more at ease who struggle in social situations. When students walk into my room and see Skye, they immediately have a smile on their face. I can’t wait to see Skye help many students throughout our building.”

She said students in her class are not afraid of Skye, although some students in school have a fear of dogs.

Skye’s owner is Roxanne Peterson, the Classroom Associate in Ashton’s class. Ashton and Roxanne agree that Skye gives students a break from their schoolwork and calms down those who become worked up. Skye is at times used as a reward, and when a student needs a break or wants to walk, Roxanne, Skye and the student will walk the hallways.

“We’ve been wanting to do it for awhile,” Roxanne said of the project. “We had to do a lot of research before it was approved,” adding that a lot of training is involved to get the dogs exposed to people and accustomed to them.

Alta-Aurelia School Superintendent Williams Walters is fully supportive of the project. “Therapy dogs help calm anxious and stressed students,” he said. “They come two to three times a week. Kids are dealing with more now than ever. If we can provide them with an outlet to help them relax and be more successful at school we are going to do that. Right now with the health situation our kids need as many of these outlets as possible available to them.”

Aurelia Elementary and Middle School Principal Jeannie Henningsen said the therapy dogs are working out well, students are excited to see them and they are helping several students in many different ways.

Alta-Aurelia High School Counselor Belinda Shea sees first-hand how therapy dogs can help improve stress and anxiety in students. “They have a calming effect. They can be beneficial with individual students or entire classrooms. They can help calm when students might be experiencing certain behaviors. They can help develop responsible behaviors and assist students to enjoy school even more,” Shea said.

Teacher and dog obedience trainer Melissa Fahr said, “When I get to school every morning the students, and the staff are always happy to greet the dogs and the dogs are so excited to see the students and staff. I have some students that come to my room just to see which dog I have and to stop and pet/play with them on almost a daily basis.”

Her dogs are usually in her classroom as she teaches which calms the students down considerably, she said. “They usually will sit or lay by students and just give and get love which many students need. A few students who might have been potential behavior problems have not become so as they have an outlet for releasing that energy,” Fahr said.

She said the school nurse, who all would agree has a very stressful job right now, is a regular visitor to her classroom to visit the dogs. She has also been a very strong supporter in the program, believing that they bring stress relief.

“I many times will let my dogs roam a little more freely before and after school and they will invite themselves into rooms and the giggles and laughter you hear plus the calls of their names being called out is so joyful. That alone is wonderful to hear,” Fahr said.

The dogs have been trained and usually are very respectful of rules and come when called, and are gentle with the students overall. “If we happen to be walking down the hall and some of the elementary students see the dogs, they are all excited to come pet them,” she said.

A future plan is to start more individual work with students, such as escorting reluctant students to class which she and the dogs have done a few times already.

The timing is right to have therapy dogs in the schools. “I did consider not bringing my dogs to school for awhile due to the COVID issues, but decided that they are needed now perhaps more than ever.”

Fahr said the last five months of school closures has been hard on everyone, and the dogs are a positive influence. Staff members stop by her classroom to see the dogs. “They look forward to seeing them just as much if not more than the students do. They have been under a lot of stress getting ready for the school year and all the constant changes due to the current situation that they need the diversion as much if not more than the students.”

Another consideration is that some students have experienced traumas in their short lifetimes, and being able to interact with animals and dogs in particular has been shown to help those students to not only relax more but to be able to interact more with the world around them, Fahr said.

The dogs are working towards their official therapy certification, and three of them have attended Fahr’s dog obedience classes during the spring, summer and fall. The puppies will be certified upon reaching the age of one.