Using Therapy Dogs in Schools: 8 Dos and Don’ts

Therapy dogs are not a new concept, but schools are using them in new and creative ways to meet the urgent needs of students.

As Education Week recently reported, educators have turned to school therapy dogs to help students manage stress, address mental health issues, and boost academic engagement.

But starting a school-based therapy dog ​​program isn’t just about putting a puppy in a classroom, experienced handlers say. And the process can be a little complicated to follow for a beginning principal, counselor, or teacher.

Here are some do’s and don’ts from educators who have been there.

Don’t Focus on Dog Breeds

There is a misconception that only certain breeds make good therapy dogs, said Helen Holmquist-Johnson, director of Human-Animal Bond in Colorado, a research center at Colorado State University that helps train and to select volunteer teachers to work in schools in the region.

“I think therapeutic work is inclusive of race,” she said. “We work with a number of dogs that you might not immediately think of as a therapy dog.”

In Loveland, Colorado, for example, owners bring many types of dogs to school, from tiny Chihuahuas to giant Bernese Mountain Dogs.

Holmquist-Johnson has also seen many mixed breeds adopted from animal shelters thrive in therapy dog ​​work. This includes blind dogs, three-legged dogs, and dogs that were neglected earlier in their lives. Sometimes students connect to dog stories, which makes the connection more meaningful, she said.

“When that happens, it’s really a very transformative story,” she said.

Focus on the dog’s temperament

The most important thing in selecting a therapy dog ​​is finding an animal that loves people, Holmquist-Johnson said.

Dogs should feel comfortable interacting with a variety of students and adults. They should also be engaging and friendly with people who may be shy or less comfortable around dogs, dog handlers told Education Week.

Once a dog is at work, schools should make sure he has plenty of breaks so he doesn’t feel overwhelmed in a high-sensory environment, said Jennifer VonLintel, a school counselor at the elementary school. BF Kitchen in Loveland. His therapy dog, a Cavalier King Charles spaniel named Toby, only comes to school one day a week to ensure he has the energy to be present with the students.

Don’t Bring a Therapy Dog to a School Without Setting Goals

A school therapy dog ​​isn’t just a classroom pet, its owners said. They should have specific goals within a school.

In recent decades, educators have worked to directly involve dogs in therapy for students with disabilities. For example, a student can strengthen fine motor skills by removing beads from a dog’s soft coat. Or, a student who has difficulty perceiving relational cues from peers can practice recognizing the signs that a dog is relaxed and content.

The dogs also serve to encourage walking behavior, their owners said. Some schools include rules for interacting with dogs, such as how to greet them and how to respect their boundaries, in their school-wide behavioral expectations. Play time with a dog, such as a game of fetch, can also serve as a reward for improved behavior.

Designate a handler to monitor each dog’s interactions with students.

On-site therapy dogs may be familiar to the entire student body, but each pet should have a consistent adult handler, VonLintel.

Dog handlers are trained to interpret dogs’ body language, recognize when they need a break and get the most out of their interactions with students, she said. Passing a dog from one teacher to another is less effective and may be less safe if some of these adults are less familiar with its training and physical signals.

Don’t assume your school needs its own dog

Schools don’t necessarily need to train and manage their own dog on site, VonLintel said.

Trainers with trained volunteer dog handlers who bring their own dogs and handle things like training, certification and insurance.

Schools can contact local volunteer handler groups or consult organizations like Pet Partners or the American Kennel Club to locate teams.

Find a great training program

School dogs must be trained in a specialized therapy dog ​​program that exposes them to a variety of unfamiliar people and situations.

They must be comfortable using wheelchairs and other mobility devices, and they must know how to respond quickly and consistently to their handlers, trainers said.

Don’t Ignore Student Limitations

Schools should consult with parents and educators to be aware of students who have allergies or aversions to dogs, avoiding specific classrooms or situations where four-legged friends might not be welcome, they said. the experts.

Administrators should also be aware of any service dogs or guide dogs used by students with disabilities and ensure that it will be safe and non-disruptive to have the animals in the same room, they said.

Get Insurance Coverage for School Therapy Dogs

Therapy dog ​​insurance covers liability costs if animals injure a person. If a therapy dog ​​is managed by the school or one of its employees, this insurance may come from a professional organization, such as a school social worker organization, from the school’s existing insurance plan , a master’s home insurance or a supplementary plan. depending on various state and local laws.


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