Keeping kids calm with canines Effectiveness of therapy pets inspire southeast Iowa schools to incorporate dogs in classrooms

Union photo by Ashley Duong

Fairfield Middle School’s principal Laura Atwood is the handler for Cash, the school’s therapy dog. Cash made his entrance into the school last Spring and has become a beloved member of the community, especially among students.
Union photo by Ashley Duong Fairfield Middle School’s principal Laura Atwood is the handler for Cash, the school’s therapy dog. Cash made his entrance into the school last Spring and has become a beloved member of the community, especially among students.

The moment Cash trots into a class, a chorus of his name from students begins to fill the room. Eyes light up and teachers smile. Everyone is eager for a chance to pet the English doodle’s incredibly soft, white fur.

“It’s pretty incredible what he can do with just his presence,” Laura Atwood, Cash’s handler and Fairfield Middle School’s Principal, said about the effect the therapy dog has on everyone in her building.

Atwood began looking into getting a therapy dog three years ago at the insistence of a special-education teacher. After several attempts with different faculty members fell through, Atwood decided to get the dog herself.

Atwood brought home Cash last May and following completion of a basic training program where Cash learned the standard ten basic commands, the principal began bringing him into school just after Christmas last year. Fairfield’s school board passed a basic board policy, which includes the approval by the superintendent before a dog is introduced to a school in the district. According to Atwood, four other teachers in the district are currently looking into getting therapy dogs to bring to their schools as well.

“There are so many mental health needs and kids just need help regulating themselves and getting calmed down. It’s an easy thing to do, the kids love it. The amount of hellos and smiles I get now is so different than before,” she said.

“I think the biggest thing is his ability to go in a room, calm a kid down. It doesn’t always work but I’d say 75 to 80 percent of the time, if not more, he goes in there it’s like a distraction thing and it’s like an instant connection with the dog, that they’re able to just calm down,” she added.

Although Cash has been at the school for less than a year, Atwood can recount various situations where Cash intuitively entered a classroom to help struggling students. The principal noted one instance when a student who was being aggressive, and yelling and screaming was helped by Cash’s presence, which caused a rapid change in behavior.

“It was very intense and Cash walked into the room … he walked over and laid down beside the student and it just brought her down within ten seconds,” Atwood said.

She added that she “thinks instinctually he knows,” when someone is struggling.

At the beginning of this school year, Atwood began allowing Cash to roam the halls of the school on his own, walking into classrooms of his own accord. In addition to making classroom visit, students also often read to the English doodle. And while Cash is there to support students, Atwood noted that the therapy dog has an affect on everyone at the school.

“He just brings a sense of comfort and calm to everyone. It’s even interesting how he calms parents down if they’re upset. It helps build a connection right away,” Atwood said.

The boom of therapy dogs in schools follows a national trend. In recent years, schools across the United States have seen a steady increase of use of therapy animals. Research from the Forum on Public Policy that collected data from studies done between 2001 and 2017 on the presence of animals in classrooms show therapy pets can help students develop more positive attitudes toward school, more easily stay on task and develop interpersonal skills and responsibility.

Atwood noted an increase in mental health needs and pressures as a reason behind the increased use of therapy dogs in schools.

“In the last nine years that I’ve been principal … the level of pressure and level of stress on kids is just different now than it was ten years ago. I think it’s just society, it’s a lot of social media. There’s a lot of hurting kids that are coming from trauma. We’ve looked a lot at poverty in our district and being more trauma informed,” Atwood noted.

The trend has found its way to schools in Southeast Iowa, where various districts already have therapy dogs in several buildings and are looking to expand. Like the Fairfield Community School District, the Washington Community School District has introduced therapy animals into their elementary school building, with an application approved for another dog to be placed at its high school and another two applications that have been submitted. The Mt. Pleasant Community School District’s school board has done several readings of policies for therapy dogs to begin being incorporated into their buildings as well.

The consensus from the three school district’s superintendents is that the presence of therapy animals provide emotional support to students, especially those who may have a harder time adjusting to being in classrooms.

Mt. Pleasant Superintendent John Henriksen said discussions of policies for therapy dogs was prompted by reports of “escalated behaviors that can cause disruptions in classrooms and buildings.” From there, the board “started researching and found that therapy animals and dogs can be a help kids de-escalate,” Henriksen added, which inspired the school board to begin looking into the policies local districts had in place for therapy dogs.

Washington Community School District Superintendent Willie Stone said he “doesn’t know exactly why” students have such positive reactions to Coral, the therapy dog currently in the district’s elementary school, but that he has seen the results of interactions with her and believe the district would benefit from introducing dogs into more of their schools.

“We’d like to have them in every building, it’s just a matter of finding someone to be the caretaker,” Stone noted.

Coral was brought to the elementary school by Teresa Beenblossom from her previous position at a school in Mid-Prairie. The golden retriever is well-loved at Lincoln Elementary and has a generally set daily schedule that includes greeting students every morning and seeing students as they leave in the afternoon. Throughout the day, Coral may also have appointments with individual students or may make trips to classrooms.

Getting Coral was an 18 month process that included working with CARES KS, an agency that works specifically to train dogs to provide services. Following the initial training process, Beenblossom and her daughter attended a program to learn how to handle Coral, who has been with her family for five years. Beenblossom is beginning her fourth school year as Lincoln Elementary’s principal. Prior to taking on a leadership role, Beenblossom worked in at-risk and guidance for 11 years, and knows the positive effect therapy dogs can have on students very well.

A pamphlet about Coral handed out from the school’s main office explains that she “supports learning by being a ‘reading buddy’” and “helps students handle stress and emotions.” Principal Beenblossom also noted that Coral helps during calm down periods and as a reward for student.

“She really develops relationships with students, especially those that she works with regularly,” Beenblossom noted.

“There’s something to be said about the unconditional love that students get from her. She brings a sense of calm,” she said.

Like Atwood, Beenblossom noted the effect Coral has on adults as well. “Sometimes people greet Coral before they greet me,” she said with a laugh.

In the five years that Beenblossom has had Coral, she has also witnessed the connections the therapy dog has been able to develop. One student in particular, who was having difficulty transitioning into school would never say no to Coral.

“We had a student that had a lot of anxiety and it wasn’t every day but any day where he didn’t want to come, I’d bring Coral out and ask him, ‘do you want to walk Coral to class?’ and it was always, ‘yup,’” Beenblossom said.

“Schools are doing what they can to reach the needs of the kids and we have kids that have a lot more needs and so whatever we can do to help students … and if a dog is something that can help students, then it’s beneficial to the system,” she concluded.

Erin Riley, a consumer sciences teacher at the Washington High School, who was approved by the district’s school board in March for a therapy dog, is also working with CARES KS. Riley is on a waitlist for a dog and has been told it could be up to two years. She was inspired partly to look into getting a therapy dog from interacting with Coral at meetings she attended in which both Principal Beenblossom and Coral were present.

“Bringing a pet in really changes the dynamic of the classroom. It’s quiest and calmer,” Riley said of her experience bringing her own dog into her classroom.

“Just the way kids interact with each other. I noticed it was quieter and they were just kinder to each other,” Riley added.

Riley anticipates the therapy dog she receives will be used to help comfort students, encourage students to come to school and be a reward for those struggling with truancy.