Easing Anxiety and Grief
The greatest demonstration of the healing power of therapy dogs might be the comfort they provided to the children of Newtown, Connecticut after the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The children returned to school full of fear and memories of a day that changed their lives forever. They left the safety of their parents arms and walked into the warm embrace of therapy dogs.
Therapy dog teams supported the children’s transition back to school after the tragedy. Remarkably, canine superheros helped give the children and staff of the Newtown schools the comfort and strength to go on.
Guy Bacon, 11 years old at the time of the shooting and a student at Reed Intermediate School, had just lost his little sister and constant companion, Charlotte.
According to his mother, JoAnn Bacon, “Guy was highly anxious about going back to school just three weeks after the shooting. His sister had just died at school. School didn’t seem like a safe haven for him. Like so many other children, he was grieving and scared.”
She continues, “The therapy dogs, there the first day the children returned, gave him a reason to want to go to school. There was Arwen, a Siberian Husky, and Kona, a Boston Terrier. About 30 therapy dogs rotated visiting the Newtown schools.”
While the dogs couldn’t change the events of December 14, 2012, they could ease the pain, make each day a little more bearable, a little less scary, and help the children heal.
As JoAnn recalls, “By the spring there was a shift in Guy. He came home excited to share the trading card of the dog who was at school that day. He wanted to go to school each day to see which dog would be there and collect all the different dog’s trading cards.”
Therapy dogs were so instrumental to Guy’s healing, and his connection with them so strong, that he wrote a book about them. In The Dogs of Newtown, Guy tells the stories of the dogs who gently supported his classmates, his teachers and himself, as they worked through unimaginable grief, loss, and fear.
If therapy dogs can help children and teachers rebuild their lives after heartbreaking tragedy, imagine how a therapy dog can calm anxious children and improve the atmosphere of your school.
What are Therapy Dogs?
By definition, therapy dogs are specially trained dogs, selected for their good temperaments, who give comfort and affection to individuals in schools, hospitals, hospices, nursing homes, and other settings.
Unlike service dogs to perform specific tasks for their owners, therapy dogs only need to one thing: enjoy being with people. By allowing people to pet, cuddle and love them they reduce stress and bring comfort to children and adults.
According to psychologist and expert animal trainer Melanie Jones, at Lead the Way in Melbourne, Australia, “Animals provide a sense of calm. Dogs help kids regulate their emotions and behaviors, becoming a best friend and trusted confidant.”
Providing a sense of calm is important. Reduction of the stress hormone cortisol and an increase in hormones associated with health and positivity, like endorphins, oxytocin and serotonin, occurs when children spend time with dogs.
Numerous studies conclude that the release of these hormones related to well-being reduces illness and improves mental health, memory, social interactions and emotional connectedness.
Supporting Children at School
Therapy dogs are becoming more common in schools in the United States and around the world. Lead The Way, an animal assisted therapy practice and dog-training facility has seen an increase in the number of schools requesting a trained therapy dog.
Head trainer and owner of Lead the Way, Melanie Jones agrees.
“We are certifying more dogs to go into schools than we ever did before, and the dogs do many things to assist in all facets of the school day,” says Melanie.
Therapy dogs assist in crisis intervention, with literacy and math support, for small group counseling, recess monitoring, and everything else in between.
Jen VonLintel, an elementary school counselor, is also a therapy dog handler. Each day she and Copper, her registered therapy dog, bring comfort and support to the children and staff at B.F. Kitchen Elementary School in Loveland, Colorado.
“I began using Copper after being part of a study by Colorado State University in which they partnered with our Thompson School District. In the research study, one group of students was assigned to a therapy dog team. The other group was assigned to a marriage and family therapist volunteer from the community, without a therapy dog.”
“The students assigned to a therapy dog team had decreased office referrals for behavior issues, increased empathy and displayed more kindness toward peers than students assigned to a therapist without a therapy dog. The therapy dog made the difference.”
The results were impressive. It motivated Jen to train Copper, her 6-year old Golden Retriever, to start a therapy dog program at her school.
Jen’s website School Therapy Dogs, schooltherapydogs.org, provides information and support to schools using or considering developing a similar program.
Jen says, “From day one, Copper has been such a positive force in our school. His presence changed the overall environment of the school, making it so welcoming and positive. He brings people together, students and staff.”
“In addition, he’s a great marketing tool. Since we have school choice in our part of Colorado, many parents are attracted to the idea of a school with a therapy dog.”
Jen shares stories, like the ones below, with schools and parents considering a therapy dog program.
School Success Stories
Building Trust after Trauma
Jen and Copper were called to the classroom of an anxious student. The young boy was new to the school and had a significant trauma background. Jen and Copper arrived to find the student hiding under a desk in his classroom.
When the boy saw Copper standing near his desk, he reached out to pet him. Jen asked if he would like to take Copper for a walk. The boy quickly agreed, and holding Copper’s leash, left the room with Jen. With Copper’s help, Jen then provided some much needed support back in her counseling office.
Jen stated that no prior interventions had worked to have the student willingly leave the room.
“This student would not speak to me or other staff members. It took Copper to build that trust and security, and then the student began opening up. This allowed us to guide the student to a location where we could talk about the incident and problem solve.”
Calming Anxiety in Class and on Assessments
“Copper was instrumental in helping another highly anxious child,” says Jen. We were called into a math class. A student had anxiety during daily math classes and would become distressed and cry. As an experiment, Copper came into class one day and calmed the student down. The crying stopped and the child was able to remain in class”
“The teacher and I later strategized, and we began to use Copper to do math with the class. Copper would come to math class once a week, and at times the teacher used Copper as part of the math lesson. For example, she might make Copper part of the story problem.”
“Although Copper was not in math class every day, the student was more positive about math class and his own math skills. This child, for the first time ever, was able to complete a math assessment and show progress in those tested skills. The significant change in the classroom was that Copper would come and visit.”
One of Jen’s favorite success stories with Copper involved a second grade student with a dog allergy.
Improving Reading Fluency
“This boy was struggling with reading, and exhibiting great anxiety with any reading tasks, which is a big part of the elementary school day. The parents approached me to see if I could work with him, despite his allergy,” Jen says.
“We used proper protocols. The parents gave the child his allergy medicine before school on days when he would work with Copper. I sprayed Copper with an anti-dander product. We met in the school library instead of my office, where Copper stays and there is more dander, “ Jen continues. “The child washed his hands after spending time with Copper.”
Jen smiles and shares, “The student began reading to Copper and petting him as he read. Within two or three sessions, his fluency rate dramatically increased. A child who had struggled with reading, to the point that he was anxious and refusing to read, became eager and excited to read! Copper helped this little boy love reading!”
“His classroom teacher said that he would watch the clock each day, waiting for his reading time with Copper. The improvement was dramatic, and measured on his fluency tests.”
Jen gives students transitional items, like a trading card of Copper, for students experiencing separation anxiety. These items help support students when Copper isn’t available. Jen uses bookmarks with Copper’s picture for students who are part of a Reading Support group with Copper.
Jen states that Copper participates in many school activities. “Copper is part of numerous aspects of the school day. From small group counseling sessions, helping with behavioral issues, recess monitoring, crisis intervention…anything and everything…Copper is involved.
“The research on the neurobiological impact of therapy dogs is so impressive,” says Jen. “Therapy dogs help people release oxytocin and dopamine and reduce cortisol, which increases trust and decreases stress.”
“Therapy dogs offer comfort and motivation to use self-regulation skills. When a student is having a difficult time in the classroom, they will immediately show me that they can use their skills to make safe decisions so they can spend time with Copper.” Jen explains.
Calming School Phobia
“A child was having significant difficulty saying goodbye to mom and wouldn’t get out of the car to come into school on the first day. Copper was the only one who could motivate her.”
Jen shares, “I took Copper out to the car and asked the student if Copper could help her find her new classroom. The child was soon out of the car and had a new best friend. Copper saved the day again.”
Jen notes that many students at her school are anxious, not only those who are identified with anxiety disorder.
“We have many children who are anxious, dealing with multiple challenges, and Copper is so therapeutic for them. Copper gives them a positive way handle their emotions in front of their peers.”
“If they are having anxiety symptoms, it is much easier for a student to leave their classroom taking Copper’s leash. Sitting and calmly petting Copper is more positive than climbing under their desk, throwing things or running from the room.”
While students spend time with Copper, Jen teaches them coping skills. They use these strategies, from their “tool box” to help them re-enter their classroom.
Copper creates a harmonious school environment that increases learning, raises test scores, increases prosocial behaviors, reduces bullying, and comforts students.
Therapy dogs help young students with separation anxiety and calm the nerves of high school and college students with exam jitters. Copper, and therapy dogs like him, are improving educational environments from preschool to graduate school.
Starting a School Therapy Dog Program
With so many benefits to therapy dogs in the schools, every educational setting, from preschool to college, should consider having a therapy dog on staff.
Fortunately, getting help and information on how to start a school therapy dog program is just a click or a phone call away.
Jen’s website, schooltherapydogs.org has information about completing a site evaluation and ways to use animal assisted therapy throughout a school. The site also has sample forms to use with parents.
Charlotte’s Litter, charoletteslitter.org is a Newtown, Connecticut based non-profit that advocates for the use of therapy dogs and helps guide educators in finding an appropriate therapy dog for their school.
Founded by JoAnn and Joel Bacon, after the Sandy Hook school shooting, the organization provides schools with numerous resources about how to implement a therapy dog program.
Their guide Bringing Therapy Dogs to Your School, is a PDF available to download on their website, http://charlotteslitter.org/resources/educators/. It has links to articles, resources and therapy dog organizations. You will also find research supporting the effectiveness of animal assisted therapy.
Therapy dogs, like Copper, and the dogs of Newtown, Connecticut, instantly reduce heart rate and lower blood pressure, and flood the body with feel-good hormones. This reduces anxiety.
Brain science has proven that a less anxious brain has increased memory and higher cognitive functioning.
Therapy dogs, at a minimal cost to a school:
~ comfort anxious children
~ create an environment that enhances learning
~ raise test scores
~ increase positive behaviors
~ reduce bullying