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Schools Bring Therapy Dogs To Focus On Post-COVID Student Mental Health

Boomer wanders the halls at Immaculate Conception School in Morris wearing a red vest that reads “therapy dog in training.” He’s a Great Pyrenees. So even at just a year old, he already clocks in at over 100 pounds and sits nose-to-nose with kindergartners.

Boomer’s owner, school principal Stacey Swanson, said during the pandemic they needed other ways to help students starting to return in-person.

“I started looking at possibly [getting a therapy dog], because we can't afford a therapist for school or a counselor or any of that type of thing here in a Catholic school,” she said.

Many schools are looking to expand mental health services to help with the trauma of 2020. In a recent mental health roundtable, Chicago students lit up when the conversation turned to potentially adding therapy dogs.

Doctors have found all sorts of new ways to utilize support animals as of late, in physical and speech therapy, and in substance abuse programs.

Swanson said Immaculate Conception uses Boomer in both ways therapy dogs are typically used in schools: stress relief and reading support. Boomer even got a picture on the staff page of the yearbook.

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Often, high schools and colleges bring in dogs around final exams to let stressed-out students pet their worries away. With younger kids, the animals can give struggling students a comfortable way to practice reading -- with their furry friends as the audience.

Trudy DesLauriers knows a thing or two about reading support. She’s taught reading intervention to elementary school students for years, along with her Golden Retrievers Martha and Thelma Lou.

COVID-19 kept the dogs at home for most of the year. DesLauriers tried going to schools once or twice during the fall, but she said the even kids were hesitant because of safety protocols. The Goldens made their grand return this spring.

“The kids needed it. Our kids didn't get to have soccer and, you know, all the special events that you have in your classroom,” DesLauriers said.

She said the kids weren’t the only ones glad to have the dogs back. The overwhelmed teachers and staff needed it too.

“It was unspoken that it's a mental health issue or a mental health crutch for them, but I felt that more adults were coming in to see the dogs especially at the end of the year,” she said.

The school expects by fall they’ll be able to hold events again where they bring in over a dozen therapy dogs, along with Martha and Thelma Lou, for the kids to read to once a month.

During the pandemic, digital therapy dogs also took off. Not animated images of dogs, but students reading to real therapy dogs over Zoom.

Carole Yuster is the head of K9 Reading Buddies in northern Illinois. She said even she wasn’t sure if it would work. If kids can’t touch or even be in the same room as the dog, can they get the same feeling?

“It was really accepted,” she said. “The kids love it, the parents love it keeps the kids motivated to want to read.”

Yuster said the virtual program expanded to up to 100 sessions a month by this spring.

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“When a child signs up, the team sends an email on behalf of the dog telling the child they're excited to hear them read. And there's a picture and then when the session is over, the team sends an email from the dog,” Yuster said.

She said the digital dogs aren’t going away either, even though they’ve been able to hold a few in-person events since.

“Some of the kids that were virtual readers actually came to read to the dog that they've been reading to on Zoom, and that brought tears to the parent's eyes,” she said.

They are looking forward to getting back to the 20-plus suburban schools the reading buddies work with.

She’s not sure if there’s going to be increased demand for therapy dogs this fall, but she thinks elevating the conversation around mental health in schools does open the door for more ways to utilize dogs.

“Maybe we'll see even more after the pandemic where teachers go for training to be a handler for a service dog,” she said. “That service dog is on-site in the counselor area when kids need some support, or they need to defuse a situation and can provide a calming moment for a child.”

Not every dog is meant to be a therapy dog, but Yuster said a dog with the right temperament can help create a positive school atmosphere for students of any age and their teachers.