Guest post by Laurie Wade

When I first proposed introducing a therapy dog to my district in 2011, I was met with a lot of raised eyebrows and skepticism. There was the expected chorus of objections: What about kids who are afraid of dogs or don’t like them? What about allergies? What if the dog hurts someone? Like most problems, all of these had solutions, and once that reassurance took hold the possibilities came forward. Research has shown that therapy dogs in schools bring a host of physical and mental benefits for the community.

Interacting with therapy dogs has been shown to lower blood pressure and reduce physical pain through the release of endorphins, resulting in an overall calming effect. Therapy dogs can also lessen depression, decrease feelings of isolation by encouraging communication and socialization, and provide comfort, especially in tense situations.

Bringing our therapy dog, Gem, into the Derry Township School District in Hershey, PA, brought with it an unanticipated, but perhaps even more significant side benefit for me as a secondary assistant principal. Like most assistant principals, a significant part of my responsibility revolves around discipline, which often involves tense, stressful interactions with various stakeholders, including parents, students, and staff members. I often felt like there was an invisible barrier between me and the students here, many of whom saw me only as the person they went to when they got in trouble. Despite my efforts to make connections in other ways, my interactions with students were often strained. Now, Gem’s presence diffuses that tension almost immediately, because let’s face it, it is hard to stay angry or scared when a 60-pound lab is wagging her tail and begging you to scratch her ears. Suddenly, a visit to my office became a lot less stressful than it used to be.

By breaking down that barrier, Gem has opened my door in literal and figurative ways. Since Gem’s arrival, students seek out visits to my office, allowing me to get to know them in a way I couldn’t have before. I have been able to learn more about their thoughts and concerns about what it is like to be a student in our district. Even more importantly, it has given students a forum to share their ideas about what school should be. Listening and responding to kids is a vital first step in determining the best ways to meet their needs, and Gem’s ability to encourage open communication has been invaluable in that process.

Over the past seven years, Gem has helped troubled students find focus and purpose, as they take responsibility for walking her during the school day. She has served as a mascot for clubs, appearing on the morning announcements to encourage students to participate. She visits students in our multiple disabilities classrooms, helping those students make connections. Her “Furry Fridays” at our elementary school spread smiles among staff and students alike. She attends sporting events with happy barks of encouragement to the students she recognizes on the playing field. In short, Gem has not just become a part of our community, she has helped to build it.

To learn more about my experience with Gem, feel free to contact me via Twitter (find my handle below) for details and assistance. If you are interested in getting a therapy dog for your school, visit NEADS World Class Service Dogs, the organization that has trained more than 1,700 service dogs since 1976, including Gem.

Laurie Wade is an assistant principal at Hershey High School in Hershey, PA. She was the 2017 Pennsylvania Assistant Principal of the Year. Follow her on Twitter @LEWhershey.

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