Sunday, May 31, 2020
Pawsitivity in the Classroom
Victoria Vesecky and Maddy roomed at the Sun Valley Lodge where Maddy found out she loved the cheeseburgers at Gretchen’s Restaurant.
Monday, April 22, 2019


They answer to the names Zipper, Wanda, Maddy and Widget.

They can wander the hallways of Forest M. Bird Charter School without a hall pass.

And, yes, they have their own Doggy Lounge where they can escape when they need a break from the 340 students at this Sandpoint school.

Assisted-therapy dogs have a way of worming their way into the hearts of the students they look out for.

These therapy dogs have had a pawsitive impact on the life of both students and teachers at this project-based school for sixth- through twelfth-graders, says Administrator Mary Jensen.

Jensen and Victoria Vesecky, the school’s social and emotional counselor, brought Maddy a 4-year-old yellow lab, to Sun Valley on Friday, showcasing their school’s therapy dog program before 650 teachers, counselors and others at the annual Idaho Prevention and Support Conference at Sun Valley Resort.

Jensen said she wasn’t initially convinced about the value of dogs in schools when a couple teachers began bringing their dogs to an elementary school where she served as principal.

“My perception was that they were bringing their pets to school because they didn’t want to leave them at home,” she said. “But we had a high-functioning autistic girl who would curl up under a desk and we would have to move the class out so I could crawl under the desk with her and try to figure out how to uncurl her.  A dog can do that in a few seconds—they’re the best thing for autistic kids who are out of control.”

Twenty percent of Forest M. Bird’s students are IEP students—eligible for special education under the Individualized Education Program. Half of the students are at poverty rate.

The dogs have reduced their anxiety and depression. They’ve increased attendance. They’ve taught responsibility, respect and empathy. They’ve provided emotional stability. They’ve helped children with their reading, serving as a nonjudgmental listener if the child stumbles over a word. And they’ve brought humor and fun to the classroom.

“It helps me build relationships with students when I’m able to greet students with a dog at my side,” said Vesecky.

Such benefits aren’t unique to Forest M. Bird, Jensen said. Boris Levinson, a child psychiatrist who began studying animal-assisted therapy after noting children’s therapy sessions were much more productive when his dog Jingles was in the room, has called pets “an island of sanity in what appears to be an insane world.”

Pets remain a faithful, intimate non-competitive friend, whether a dog, cat, bird, fish, turtle or what have you, he added.

The American Counseling Association adopted pet therapy as a tool for schools in 2016.

A large inner-city school district with high violence levels despite metal detectors conducted an experiment in which it used animal-assisted therapy in school and not in the other. Violence plummeted to nearly nothing in the school with dogs. The level of violence remained the same in the other.

Recently, the City of Milford, Conn., developed a program utilizing therapy dogs not just in schools but health care facilities, as well.

Last week, Forest M. Bird teachers used school dogs to calm students as ISAT testing sent anxiety sky high.

 “They’ve done studies that say having a dog increases test scores,” said Jensen.

Teachers and counselors at Forest M. Bird incorporate dogs as part of the curriculum for special education students, as they use the dogs to teach about non-verbal behavior. Periodically, students get to take part in a dog training program.

“It’s something they look forward to every day,” said Vesecky. “They learn empowerment as they take turns walking the dogs and filling their water bowls. And they learn about boundaries and space as they watch for signs that a dog needs a break.”

Vesecky uses the dogs in counseling sessions where she’s seen how the mere act of putting a hand on the dog can quell an anxiety attack.

Even a teacher who was having a ruff day crawled under desk for 15 minutes with one of the dogs.

The use of animal-assisted therapy can also deescalate crises and conflicts.

Jensen recounted dealing with an angry parent who screamed at her on the phone, then came to school to scream at her in person.

“She stormed in and saw Maddy, and said, ‘Oh, Maddy!’ Maddy moved in to sit next to her and it calmed her right down. It took the emotion out of the situation and we had a good productive conversation from there on,” she said.

Teachers have dangled the promise of spending time with a dog in front of special education students who balk at attending class.

 “We had them dig a dog maze the snow this winter. And the kids got so excited about the chance to pick up the dog poop,” Jensen said.

The dogs are not a distraction, said Vesecky. In fact, the opposite is true. The presence of dogs prompts the students to focus and finish their work quicker so they can spend time with a dog.

Allergies have not been an issue. Jensen’s secretary is allergic to dogs but happily works outside the principal’s office where Maddy spends a lot of time. Once-a-week office cleanings seem to nip problems in the bud.

One student was nervous around the dogs initially, having been attacked by a dog elsewhere. But counselors worked with her until her fears were alleviated.

But not all dogs are suited for school assignments.

One dog thought to be a perfect fit barked at a student who manifested multiple personalities, trying to protect the principal.

But there are plenty of organizations that assist schools in setting up programs, said Jensen. Among them, Charlotte’s Litter, started by the parents of a student killed in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School after they saw firsthand the comfort and help dogs could offer.

Forest M. Bird currently has two puppies in training, with teachers bringing them to school one day a week.

Teachers ensure that the children don’t overwhelm the puppies by asking each student to pretend to be a dog while everyone shouts his or her name.

“This shows how confusing it can be for a dog like Maddy when everyone is calling her at once,” said Jensen.

And Maddy?

She had been trained to identify PTSD symptoms, such as anxiety and stress, in veterans. When she sensed their heart beat elevating, she would lay her head on their laps.

It turned out neither vet was able to keep her for one reason or another and that’s when she became a school dog.

“Their loss was our gain,” said Jensen.


Adults who used canine therapy while recovering form total joint-replacement surgery required 50 percent less pain medication, according to a 2009 study by Loyola University.

Nursing home residents with dementia exhibited statistically significant decreases in agitated behaviors and statistically significant increases in social interaction with animal-assisted therapy.


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