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Happy Tails: Therapy Dogs in the Classroom

The magic of therapy dogs in schools

Levi trots into the classroom from recess with a group of friends as Hayli Thomas explains how much he helped a few years back when she was recovering from brain surgery — everything from working on reading skills to sitting together at lunch.

“Having a friend like Levi is great,” says the Willett Elementary School sixth-grader. “Levi listens. He doesn’t tell you what to do or how to talk.”

As English language arts teacher Leslie Allen resumes class, Levi hops up onto a set of desks and surveys the room, tail wagging slightly as four hands quietly stroke and scratch his soft coat. Without a doubt the most beloved student in the class, Levi is an Australian shepherd — a therapy dog — whose talents go far beyond being cute and furry.

Levi and friends. Photo by Scott Buschman

“He works in math, he works in reading, he does social-emotional learning, and he works with kids in crisis,” says Allen, a member of the Davis Teachers Association (DTA). “He is unique in the therapy dog world, because he is trained to work with all people, not just one person.”

Little hands extend for a quick pet as Levi meanders around the room, stopping occasionally to give a little extra affection where needed. He seems to have a knack for finding the students who could use a friend at that very moment. For five years, Levi has been an integral part of Allen’s classroom, listening to students read, reducing anxiety, brightening bad days and providing comfort.

A 25-year educator, Allen first brought a dog into a classroom environment 10 years ago, when she was working as a math specialist in an after-school program and realized her students were so much more engaged when their math assignments involved a furry friend. The students would play with the dog and then calculate how fast or how far he ran. By the end of the year, every student in the program improved their math skills by one grade level, and two students moved up two grade levels. Allen was convinced about the power of a therapy dog in her classroom.

“I think there’s a lot we haven’t discovered about why and how this works,” she says.

Some of the science behind Levi’s magic is known, however. Interacting with the pup lowers the level of cortisol (a stress hormone) in the brain and raises levels of oxytocin and dopamine (“happy” hormones).

Mia Udwary with Levi. Photo by Scott Buschman

“When I’m stressed, it’s relaxing to be with Levi because I can feel him telling me ‘You can do it,’” says sixth-grader Mia Udwary. “If dogs were in every classroom, it would help lower stress levels and make kids feel happier.”

Levi is not the only special pup in Davis Joint Unified School District. Pam Snipes, a special education teacher at Oliver Wendell Holmes Middle School, has two canines of her own, boxer Zippideedoodah (Zip, for short) and cockapoo Mick Wagger. The 35-year teacher and DTA member hadn’t brought therapy dogs into the classroom before coming to Davis in 2012 to work with students who are emotionally disturbed. Snipes says her dynamic duo have a special relationship with her students.

“It’s amazing to me how comforting they are,” Snipes says. “Zip and Mickey seem to be the bridge between ‘I’m not talking to you’ and ‘OK, I’m ready to talk now.’”

Pam Snipes with Zipadeedoodah and Mick Wagger. Photo by Scott Buschman

Zip has a special knack for comforting students and easing stressful situations, and he loves running out some energy at lunchtime with one of Snipes’ students who has severe ADHD. The licensed therapy dog was named Student of the Month last year for his contributions to the school community. The dogs are an important part of the school environment, so much so that even when Snipes is away, her paraeducators pick up Zip and Mick from her home to bring them to class.

And it’s not only the students who benefit. Every morning, Snipes takes the dogs for a walk through the school’s front office, where the staff are counting on their visit.

“It just makes our whole day. We’re always so happy to see Zip and Mickey,” says counselor and DTA member Ellen Shields, as the dogs take treats from her hand. “The impact on the school climate that these guys have made is amazing.”

Dorothy. Photo by Scott Buschman

Holmes has one more dog with a big impact on students: special education teacher Cori Schneider’s poodle Dorothy. Schneider, also a DTA member, says there’s something special about the relationship between kids and dogs. “The way Dorothy looks at students makes them feel seen, wanted and loved, which is what you want for all students.”

While the benefits are striking, Allen cautions that bringing therapy dogs into the classroom is a big responsibility. Not only do they need the temperament and patience for six hours of eager, poking, prying and not always gentle hands, Allen says, but helping people is their job. Just like a teacher after a long day with students, Levi also needs some me time, which means an hour of exercise before and after school.

“It takes a lot of work outside of class to let him get the energy out,” Allen says. “He’s working all day. He needs his time.”

Right now, Levi is working on a short nap while lying on a reading student’s lap. And it looks like neither could possibly be happier.

Joy in the Classroom

San Bernardino educator Fiorela Piedra had tried many strategies to help her students with social-emotional problems: mindfulness lessons, behavior charts, Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports — you name it. Nothing seemed to help, until a three-legged dog named Joy came into her life and became an important part of her classroom.

Joy and a friend enjoy a book.

Joy’s journey from death’s door to therapy dog is its own story. Piedra, a member of the San Bernardino Teachers Association, works with a local rescue group called Cause for San Bernardino Paws. She agreed to foster Joy, whose sunny disposition only 24 hours after losing a leg in a car accident caused a change from her previous moniker, Sassy.

After fostering the chocolate Labrador/pit bull/golden retriever mix for a month, Piedra gave Joy a forever home. Joy became a part of Piedra’s classroom community a few weeks before her certification as a therapy dog. Piedra’s students were having trouble with peer relationships, and Joy’s arrival immediately brought a different energy to the classroom.

“Joy walked around the class to meet each student, stopping by some students’ desks a little longer than others,” Piedra says. “What was interesting was the ones she stayed longer at were kids who needed the extra attention.”

Piedra says every student read to Joy that day, bringing a much-needed calming energy to the classroom. Joy now visits Piedra’s class a few days a week.

“I have to say that her presence has improved my class’s behavior,” she says. “My discipline issues in the class are usually nonexistent when Joy is here and about half what they used to be when she is not.”

Why Read With Dogs?

We asked Leslie Allen how reading to her therapy dog Levi makes a difference for her students.

Neha Dalal reads with Levi. Photo by Scott Buschman

“Reading to Levi is interacting with a living thing. Kids can sit down with the dog and read for 45 minutes without stopping. Working dogs like shepherds make the best reading buddies because they’re not averse to eye contact like most dogs. Adults know that dogs don’t need to look at us to listen, but for kids it helps them know the dog is paying attention.

“The students always read out loud to Levi. When you read out loud, your brain catches mistakes that would be missed if you were reading silently. So, when they read out loud to Levi, they catch their mistakes and their fluency goes up dramatically.”

Service Dogs Help Educators, Too

Everyone loves golden retrievers — it’s a scientific fact. And as Halle ambles around the State Council of Education meeting, the reaction of CTA leaders upon sight of her proves it.

But Halle is more than the fluffy, friendly unofficial mascot of CTA State Council. She is a medical alert and response dog, specifically trained to partner and work with educator Laura Finco, vice president of the San Ramon Valley Education Association (SRVEA). While Halle is keenly alert to Finco’s disability, she is also aware of and sensitive to those around her, often approaching others who she detects are stressed, not feeling well, or just in need of some unconditional love.

Halle, with Laura Finco behind her.

When Finco was working in a classroom every day, Halle was busy changing lives in her own way. Halle once made friends with a chronically absent student, who would come to first period class just to spend time with her furry friend. The relationship changed the way the student felt about school, and today she is a senior in high school headed for university.

Finco says Halle also had such a calming effect on a student named Ishy that Ishy’s IEP (Individualized Education Program) had a provision that he could visit Halle any time he needed.

“Halle is a magnet for students,” Finco says. “Just being around her brings calm to a room.”

Without her service dog Shadow, art teacher and SRVEA member Jennie Drummond might not be able to go outside because of her panic disorder. Shadow is trained to check her heart rate and anxiety levels, and she responds when Drummond exhibits anxiety symptoms.

Shadow wears #RedForEd.

Drummond says that because her disabilities are not visible, people often assume that Shadow is around for fun, despite her service vest and badge.

“She’s a working pup who is trying to focus on helping me,” Drummond says. “The biggest struggle has been students I do not know yet and staff trying to pet her or distract her without my permission.”

Drummond says she doesn’t know what she’d do without her. “Before Shadow, being anywhere outside my home on my own was difficult, almost unbearable. With her, I feel like I can do almost anything, because I know I am taken care of in the event of a flare-up.”

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