Therapy Dogs

Therapy dogs play key role in well-being of students
Posted on 10/22/2012

Earlier this semester, a student at the Poplar Bluff 5th & 6th Grade Center went into the guidance counseling office crying so intensely she could not get out the words to convey what was wrong.

The young girl sat down at a table under which therapy dog Creggan was lying and Creggan proceeded to lick the girl’s face, which suddenly caused her to smile and giggle. She kissed the dog on the head, stood up, wiped her eyes and walked out the door.

“I still do not know why she was crying,” counselor Luann Elledge recalled. “I do know that when she left she felt better and was happy, and I didn’t have to say a word.”

Creggan, a two-and-a-half-year-old Irish setter, is one of two professional therapy dogs being utilized in the Poplar Bluff School District. Lake Road Elementary has a black Labrador retriever, Airial, who turned three last month.

Upon receiving board approval, Elledge and Lake Road Counselor Valerie Duncan spent a week in Kansas to complete a training course through the Canine Assistance Rehabilitation Education Services. After the dogs each passed their public access tests, the counselors took the service pets home to prepare for work once the school year began.

The therapy dogs were paid for through private individual donations, civic organizations such as the Lions and Rotary clubs, churches like First United Methodist, as well as local businesses including Gamma HealthCare and Dan’s Trophies. Where fundraising efforts fell short toward the necessary $2,500 at the 5th & 6th Grade Center, Elledge made up the difference. The counselors are the owners of the dogs outside of the school setting, responsible for supplying food and veterinary care.

Among other things, the purpose of the dogs is to provide emotional support and stress relief, such as what Creggan did with the girl in hysterics. Perhaps above all, the dogs show acceptance.

“Dogs love unconditionally, no matter your race, income; how you look, smell,” Elledge explained. “They just bring a smile to your face. Even the teachers come by and say, ‘I just need some Creggan time.’”

Elementary students at Lake Road read to Airial in the classroom. Under the Missouri Schoolwide Positive Behavior Support system, students can earn rewards from teachers for various academic achievements, and purchase the dog as a companion for 15 minutes.

“Research shows that having therapy dogs helps attendance go up, and that’s something that we’re working toward here,” Duncan stated. “She can calm a kid down quicker than an adult. If a student is out of control, we bring Airial down, and they just start petting her.”

Duncan first began reading about therapy dogs in the school setting several years ago, and once she brought her findings up to Elledge, the counselors agreed it was something worth pursuing. Accompanied by Lake Road Principal Erica Weadon, Superintendent Chris Hon and board member Gary Simmons, they took a trip to Scott City, where yellow Lab Butter has been successfully integrated into the school system. R-I officials submitted an application to CARES shortly thereafter.

“Having to talk to an adult can be weird some times, and we learned that [having a therapy dog present] is a great way to open up the lines of communication,” Elledge said, admitting: “Kids probably know him better than they know me! I’m ‘Creggan’s mom.’ I have no name anymore. It’s the funniest thing.”

Fifth grader Alex Dean, 11, sometimes comes into the counseling office with a friend to have lunch with Creggan.

“I like Creggan,” Alex said. “He’s just really good; well trained. He listens really good. He’s one of the prettiest dogs I’ve ever seen.”

Something of a local celebrity, Creggan even has his own Facebook page. Asked why she does not participate in social media—whether she believes Creggan is a ham—Airial declined to comment.

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Cutline: Classmates Selena Burks, 8, and 9-year-old Daniel Langley read a book to professional therapy dog Airial last week at Lake Road Elementary.

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