Off the leash: Alta-Aurelia Schools forward with therapy dogs plan

Friday, December 13, 2019

Two members of the Alta-Aurelia staff brought a proposal to the school board this week, seeking to add a therapy dog program to the district.

Sixth grade teacher Melissa Fahr in Aurelia and classroom associate Roxanne Peterson in Alta - both experienced with dogs - pitched the program to a receptive board.

The two staff members cite issues being seen in the schools - children coming in from situations of poverty, abuse, neglect, single parent households and other disadvantages. Traumatic backgrounds can lead to anxiety, depression and inappropriate behavior in school.

They feel that therapy dogs would be one way to improve social and emotional well-being.

The plan will take time - it is anticipated that training animals could take a year.

A local family has stepped forward to offer a donation of puppies from a recent litter of “goldendoodles” - poodle and golden retriever mix. Fahr, who has been a dog trainer for three decades as well as a 4H dog show judge, recommends poodles for the therapy role, for both their temperament and a tendency for low allergy issues.

She said she has seen first hand the impact a dog can make on troubled kids. “I have a dog that probably has more personality than I do. More people in Albert City know my dog than know me.”

She cited the Charlotte’s Litter program, founded and named in honor of a young dog lover who lost her life in the Sandy Hook, CT mass shooting in 2012, as well as the successful Storm Lake therapy dog program.

The two staff members feel that dogs should be trained to work with more than one person in the schools, and that they should work half days to prevent them from “burning out.” One possibility is matching the dogs with 4Hers who are experienced working with dogs.

They propose that three dogs could be trained - one for each building.

Liability can be an issue, but the superintendent said he has worked in another district with a dog program, and is confident the district’s insurance will cover the situation.

“As an educator as well as a dog person, I feel the benefits far outweigh any barriers,” Fahr said.

The proponents stressed that therapy dogs are much different than “emotional support animals” - which are not necessarily trained and have raised some ire as owners insist on taking them on planes or into restaurants. They are also not the same as guide/assistance dogs for special needs individuals, as people are discouraged from touching those dogs when they are working, while therapy dogs are trained for cuddling, and often can sense those who need them.

Experts say therapy dogs can help lower blood pressure and stress, increase good chemicals like dopamine and serotonin in the brain, ease isolation in children who can develop social skills with the dog’s help, and even encourage reading skills as young students read to a dog.

Board member Jen Kaskey was pleased with the concept. “I’m a huge believer in the power of a dog’s love,” she said.

The board agreed unanimously to proceed, though has not committed funds at this time. It is anticipated that owners will bear responsibility for the dogs’ care.