Imagine two elementary students sitting in a corner reading to each other. You would usually expect to see them off in their own little worlds paying attention to everything but their books.
Today is different though because Harrison, a golden retriever, is sitting next to them as they read back and forth. Harrison is not judging the children’s reading, but instead he is just listening.
According to Jenna Steers, Harrison’s owner and a kindergarten teacher at Melrose-Mindoro, this is a common sight when she brings one of her two therapy dogs into the school for a day.
“It has been proven that dogs bring a therapeutic rapport to environments such as classrooms, hospitals, nursing homes and just even having a dog present has been proven through research to calm kids, to make kids feel comfortable and to give kids almost a purpose for learning,” Steers said.
This is why Steers with her dogs Marley and Harrison and Christina Kurschner with her dog Lambeau bring their dogs to the Melrose Elementary School on a regular basis.
Community volunteers first brought therapy dogs to the Mindoro Elementary School two to three years ago.
“We realized that for young students, especially those that were reluctant to read, they jumped on it because it was a non-judgmental fixture. The dog is not going to judge,” Melrose-Mindoro Elementary School Principal Corey Peterson said.
Steers has seen this in her classroom when students read to Marley or Harrison.
“It is calming for them knowing that they can just read the story and all the dog is going to do is listen. They are not going to say anything back. They are not going to correct them or not going to comment on the way they are reading,” Steers said.
After the introduction of the therapy dogs, teachers saw students reading to dogs like they had never seen them read before.
“We had a lot more engagement with the kids in reading and being willing to read whether it just be the sake of wanting to read to the dog or the fact that they are picking up books that they were never able to read before,” Peterson said.
Steers has noticed this engagement with reading even happens when a teacher isn’t watching.
“If they are off by themselves, at least at the kindergarten level, they are just goofing off—they are not really always reading. When you put a dog there, I could walk away and they would be actually reading. They wouldn’t be fooling around,” Steers said.
Reading not the end
Besides advantages while reading, the therapy dogs also help with many other daily life skills students need to learn.
“It builds a lot of different skills for kids in the classroom, not only the reading component, but also understanding taking turns, positive reinforcement, just all of those things coming into play,” Peterson said.
The district is also making sure the dogs are serving those students that are at-risk.
“For some of these kids they just want to feel like they have a connection and the dog is giving them a connection,” Peterson said.
Steers has also seen where the therapy dogs have encouraged students to make better choices and can help students with disabilities.
“The last time I had Marley in here she actually prevented probably three kids from having a major meltdown,” Steers said. “I think with students that have autism or ADHD or students with other disabilities, it is calming and relaxing just that motion of petting a dog. It calms them down.”
The students also look forward to the day therapy dogs come into the classroom, so teachers have been able to use it as an incentive for good behavior from the students.
Steers has been careful to make sure Harrison and Marley don’t take the attention of students away from the classroom by implementing a simple rule: work comes first. Students are allowed to pet Harrison and Marley, but then they need to get back to work.
“He will come up to some students and they will give him a pet and then he will go around to another one. So he just roams around and checks everyone out while they do their work,” Steers said.
Training a therapy dog
To be therapy dogs, Marley, Harrison and Lambeau had to pass three obedience classes.
Basic manners class and advanced manners class were the first two classes they had to complete taking six weeks each.
The therapy training class included a class as well as a big test administered by Therapy Dogs International at the end where the dog has to score a 100 percent.
The test includes being able to obey basic commands; handle distractions like a running vacuum cleaner and being around things like crutches; and grab the dog’s ears and tail.
“Your dog has to be able to stay calm and be able to be in an environment even when it may be chaotic,” Steers said.
For Steers, the love for dogs and training them came at a young age.
“When I was younger I fell in love with golden retrievers, so I had to get my own which was Marley who was my first,” Steers said adding that she fell in love with golden retrievers after her cousin got one.
Steers’ cousin had cerebral palsy and so her aunt and uncle got the dog as a service and therapy dog.
“After she actually ended up passing away, when we were both young, they wanted to keep that service going and so they ended up buying golden retrievers to train as service dogs and then they’d end up giving them away as service dogs,” Steers said. “So when I would go visit them I would always fall in love with their dogs and they were so well behaved – so well trained. I said someday I am going to be doing the same thing.”
Steers has come to find that giving dogs a purpose also brings enjoyment to their life.
“I think it is even great to give dogs a purpose because they want to please – they want to have a purpose. I think it is not only enjoyable for the kids, it is enjoyable for the dogs. He loves being here. I have not seen him this happy in so long,” Steers said.
For Peterson, it is nice that teachers like Steers and Kurschner are willing to bring in their therapy dogs throughout the year.
“They took it upon themselves – they are definitely animal lovers and they went with it and we are definitely appreciative of it because they are willing to share their talents with us,” Peterson said.
Kurschner’s husband is a counselor with the Bangor School District so Lambeau also gets the opportunity to see students in that school district as well.