Therapy dogs proposed for Clintonville students
Dogs reduce anxiety, improve skills, principal says
By Erik Buchinger
Rexford-Longfellow Elementary School Principal Tom Burkhalter presented on therapy dogs to the Clintonville School Board on June 24.
Burkhalter pointed out some of the benefits to having therapy dogs in classrooms, which is becoming a trend in area school districts.
“If you come home after a long, stressful day of work, dogs seem to have a way of cheering you up,” Burkhalter said. “For the students, many of the teachers, counselors and administrators have said dogs help with anger management issues and bullying behavior. In addition to other anti-social conduct, they reduce stress and anxiety while improving reading and comprehensive skills.”
Burkhalter said Shawano provided a video of a student that benefited from a therapy dog.
“They have a student that is on the autism spectrum and does not talk to anyone,” Burkhalter said. “He is not verbal with anyone, not even his parents. They have video of him reading to this dog, and it’s amazing. They had no idea that was going to be the result.”
Hillcrest Primary in Shawano, which is pre-kindergarten through second grade, has three dogs with three different handlers. Each dog has different roles and responsibilities based on the dog’s strengths.
“They have dogs that are used if an elevated situation occurs,” Burkhalter said. “They have a specific dog that comes in and can handle some screaming, throwing things but can calm a kid down in the matter of seconds.”
According to Hillcrest’s behavior data, the number of incidents did not decrease much, but it took administration and teachers less time to get the kids back on track after an incident.
“It has an effect on the number, but it has a great impact on getting kids back in the classroom and learning where we need them to be,” Burkhalter said.
Burkhalter said dogs help kids who are nervous with speaking in front of people, especially when the child is not a strong reader for their age group.
“They’ve set up a pretty comprehensive program of when you can check out dogs and simply have kids read to them, and it has been very successful,” Burkhalter said.
Dogs are used to increase empathy, compassion, self-esteem and calms fears, according to Burkhalter. They are beneficial to decompress after traumatic events and decrease retaliatory behavior.
In Shawano, one dog is at the school for part of the day, one is available for three days a week and one is there full-time.
“It depends on what the dog can handle and how comfortable they are in the environment and the ability to have a handler ready because usually they don’t put them in a regular classroom,” Burkhlater said. “Usually it’s a counselor or a principal and some sort of support staff.”
Superintendent David Dyb said a selective process would be in place to find the right dogs for students.
“You can’t just pull a puppy out of the pound and expect them to be a therapy dog,” Dyb said. “People have high expectations for their animals, but very few animals will actually qualify for this service.”
In addition to schools, funeral homes, nursing homes, prisons, hospitals and veterans with PTSD use therapy dogs.
“I have specific stories, but all are very similar,” Burkhalter said. “They come in and call it dog therapy. It helps everybody bring their levels down and talk about what’s happening and be able to process what’s happening.”
Therapy Dogs International is the group most schools are currently going with. The organization helps train, evaluate and sponsor dogs.
The dog’s handlers are given coverage of $1 million to $2 million for liability insurance in case something were to happen.
“That’s obviously a comforting thing for those handlers as well that will have that support if God forbid something would happen,” Burkhalter said. “We would do our homework beforehand, but in the off chance something happens, they have coverage for the dog handlers. With our process, this would probably be required as they do this in Shawano.”
Shawano held a public campaign where dogs were present and families could come in during the summer and meet with the dogs at different times to interact with them. Some parents did not want their child in small groups with dogs.
“That’s perfectly fine,” Burkhalter said. “We will avoid that and respect the wishes of the parents.”
The organization requires cleanliness, grooming and proof the dogs are regularly being groomed, which reduces allergic reactions.
“If (students allergic to dogs) avoid direct contact, the odds of an allergic reaction to those who are allergic is very slim to have that reaction,” Burkhalter said. “Having dog fur in the air is not likely to cause any type of reaction.”
Burkhalter said dogs are required to have regular veterinarian checkups to ensure the dogs are healthy.
“If administration or staff notices there’s a limp or something happening, we will definitely address that,” Burkhalter said. “Organizations require regular vet checks where they can make sure the dogs are ready to be in that environment and be exposed to kids.”
Fear of dogs
Burkhalter said dogs are a real fear for many children.
“This is an extensive implementation process,” Burkhalter said. “You talk about the dog multiple times, what the dog’s role is and how kids are expected to behave around the dog.”
The process is a slow introduction to each group of kids who will be working with those dogs.
“What they’ve found anecdotally is those who had extreme fear of dogs switch over to the other extreme,” Burkhalter said. “They love being around the animals.”
No school board members were opposed to the administration moving forward in the process. Burkhalter said the district’s mental health team will develop administrative guidelines and expectations.