Puppy love on campus helping kids cope with daily stress

Puppy love on campus helping kids cope with daily stress

(Calif.) Students stressed out over impending college acceptance and rejection letters drop by a teacher’s class to spend time brushing the therapy dog in her class just to calm their nerves.

At another campus, a first grader practices reading aloud while absentmindedly playing with the ears of a therapy dog that visits his class once a week.

Man’s best friend is playing an increasingly important role in maintaining student mental health as more becomes required of students to succeed academically.

Vicky Warren, a health teacher at Casa Roble high school in the San Juan Unified School District, has been bringing her golden retriever Cooper to class for the last five years. Warren said that having him in the classroom makes it feel more like home, which has helped lower student stress and made it easier to learn.

“He comes with me almost every day,” Warren said. “I've had students with anxiety and even Tourette Syndrome pet Cooper to feel calmer. Students come to my classroom at lunch, during passing periods, and a few stop by regularly for their daily interaction with Cooper.”

Warren said that some students credit Cooper as the only reason they show up to school some days.

“He is an integral part of my classroom and behavioral management, and I'm thrilled about the joy he brings to my students' day,” she said.

Research has long shown that petting an animal can help lower blood pressure and ease symptoms of depression and anxiety. For students in particular, being around a therapy dog can improve socialization and mood, and reduce feelings of isolation or boredom, according to a 2014 study from St. Catherine University in Minnesota.

The impact for younger learners may extend beyond developing high self-esteem, communication and social skills. Research also shows that having a dog in the classroom can boost a child’s confidence in reading.

“In earlier grades they can serve as reading therapy dogs that help children who are struggling in reading, and that’s a big deal with kids growing up,” said Mike Callahan, spokesman for companionanimals.org–a San Diego-based group that provides resources and information about certification for therapy animals.

The companion animals organization was started by two Navy veterans after they saw the positive effects a therapy dog had on a fellow veteran suffering from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Their site aims to educate the public on the benefits therapy dogs bring to individuals struggling with different mental health and social-emotional issues–as well as academic challenges for children.

“For a kid that’s struggling to read aloud in the classroom, it’s a very frightening experience,” Callahan said. “You have fellow students looking at you, a teacher looking at you, and people sometimes get frustrated with kids who have trouble reading. But a dog doesn’t judge–they just sit there and smile at the kid.”

A University of California, Davis study found in 2015 that when kids read aloud to dogs for just 10 to 15 minutes per week it can boost their reading proficiency by 12 percent. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, Indiana and Edinboro University concluded as early as 2004 that therapy dogs could raise literacy by at least two grade levels.

Due to the mental and physical health benefits of having therapy dogs around, places such as hospitals, nursing homes, and prisons have embraced pet therapy as a part of treatment and rehabilitation for decades. Colleges typically began bringing therapy dogs onto campus following school shootings to help students cope, process grief and ease feelings of depression and fear, Callahan said, but administrators quickly saw how the dogs also helped students deal with anxiety in general. Now it is common for most colleges to bring therapy and companion dogs to the university library during finals.

According to Callahan, colleges were quick to recognize the benefits of therapy dogs, but the practice of bringing them to school sites has come more slowly to K-12 systems throughout the country.

Teachers in Ohio, New Jersey, Texas and Iowa have brought dogs into classrooms to help students cope with tragedy, teach them responsibility, boost reading proficiency or improve social-emotional skills.

At Casa Roble High School located in Orangevale, California, students actually have access to two therapy dogs on a regular basis. Judy Butler, an art teacher at the school, brings her pet therapy-certified dog Bella to class every Tuesday and Thursday.

“Students have told me numerous times that they wish she would come daily,” Butler said. “There have been several times when students who are not enrolled in my class come into my classroom because they are having a bad day and ask for time to sit with Bella.”

The students who come in often choose to sit off to the side and spend one-on-one time with Bella until they begin to feel better, Butler explained.

“I am convinced it has been very effective in helping students with anxiety and depression, and I have even heard students say the only reason they come to school is to be with her,” Butler said.