Therapy dogs give students educational boost in schools

Article Reprinted From The Bucks County Courier Times and Posted Online Mar 18, 2019 at 10:00 AM

By Chris English

Centennial School District Superintendent David Baugh recently purchased a Yellow Labrador Retriever named Jake who will be both Baugh’s personal pet and the district’s full-time therapy dog.

The Centennial School District has a new full-time employee, but this one won’t be showing up on the payroll.

He’s a tail-wagging, attention-loving Yellow Labrador Retriever named Jake — now known as Centennial Jake — who will be compensated with water, treats and affection.

“He’s working for food and love,” said Centennial Superintendent David Baugh, who purchased the dog at a recent fundraiser for police K-9 units and decided almost immediately that Jake would not only be a personal pet but the school district’s full-time therapy dog.

Centennial, which had already been using dogs from the Northampton-based nonprofit Nor’wester Readers, is one of several area school districts that use therapy dogs as part of their educational programs. Central Bucks, Bensalem, Palisades, Morrisville and Pennsbury are among those that utilize canines on a regular or semi-regular basis to help students with reading and other skills.

Baugh said Centennial Jake needs several weeks of training before officially starting his duties, but he’s already bringing the dog to work every day so he can get used to interacting with students and staff.

Because dogs give their affection unconditionally and are completely non-judgmental, it can be very helpful for students who are nervous reading aloud or have other reading difficulties to read aloud to dogs, Baugh and other school district officials said.

And petting or otherwise interacting with dogs can be great stress reducers for both regular and special education students having emotional or other problems. The interactions have a calming effect and often allow students to sharpen their focus on studies, officials added.

“We know that if we can reduce a kid’s stress, he or she will tend to do much better in school,” Baugh said. “We’ve had a relationship with Nor’wester Readers for years where they bring in both reading and stress reducing dogs, and now we have Centennial Jake. We see him working in our schools for the next 10 to 12 years.”

Dogs from Nor’wester Readers have been visiting various Bensalem Township elementary schools since 2012, school district spokeswoman Susan Phy said.

“Students read one-on-one or in groups with the dogs,” she said. “The dogs help shy students who may not be comfortable reading aloud to become great readers.”

Both Bensalem middle schools, Cecelia Snyder and Robert K. Shafer, have full-time therapy dogs, Phy said. Snyder’s dog Rocky is owned by Principal Tom Evert and the canine at Shafer, Bailey, is owned by former Principal Bill Incollingo, now the school district’s information technology director.

Both dogs have become part of their school’s culture, Phy said.

“Bailey now primarily works with special needs students in Stephanie Lombardo’s classroom,” she said. “Bailey helps keep students calm prior to test taking. Students spend time each week reading to Bailey one-on-one. Many of the students have improved and moved their reading level up a grade level since working with him.”

Students also help take care of Bailey, which teaches them responsibility and helps them with general life skills once they leave school, Phy said.

Rocky has been an equally valuable asset at Snyder, she added.

“In the four years Rocky has been at Snyder, he has helped bring the school together by creating a strong sense of community,” Phy said. “Students who may feel anxious, upset or frustrated visit Rocky to relax and relieve agitation, anxiety and/or stress. Student confidence levels have greatly improved, and they feel more relaxed to participate in classroom discussions and activities.”

For the last 14 years, canines from the nonprofit Roxy Therapy Dogs have been visiting many elementary schools in the Central Bucks district to help both regular and special education students, Roxy President Sharon Fleck said.

“With special ed classes, having the dogs visit on a regular basis helps those students with developing social skills and helps them cognitively and behaviorally,” she said. “Having dogs around helps them to calm down and make them more receptive to new experiences. Our dogs have started visiting some of the specialized classes on the secondary (middle and high schools) level as well.”

The dogs assist with autistic support, multiple disability, learning support and life skills classes, Fleck said.

In mainstream classes that include both regular and special education students, dogs helps students with fluency skills, she added.

“With children struggling with fluency, having a dog there kind of takes the edge off and they’re not so worried when reading aloud about mispronouncing something and things like that,” Fleck said. “It helps develop more confident and willing readers.”

The Palisades School District has therapy dogs named Mr. Chips and Persey who assist both regular and special education students with reading and other skills, district officials said. Students enjoy reading aloud to the dogs, and so it’s also used as a reward for completing reading assignments at home, they added.

Pennsbury School District Special Education Director Sherri Morett said therapy dogs are used at Quarry Hill and Eleanor Roosevelt elementary schools and Village Park Academy to help students with social, emotional and life skills needs.

In the Morrisville district, Superintendent Jason Harris said therapy dogs are brought in for “practicing readers in our after-school programs. This happens at least weekly. It’s easier for these students to practice reading aloud in front of a non-judgmental audience like these dogs. It’s a win-win. The kids get a dose of puppy love, and the dogs get showered with attention from the whole gang.”

View Article on Bucks County Courier Times website.