Hire dogs to help struggling students and promote learning

dogs-in-schools-to-help-kidsThe power of a friendly dog to comfort traumatized people is already well-known, if not to pet owners, then to those who’ve heard of examples like golden retriever therapy dogs being sent to Newtown, Connecticut after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. Could dogs also be used in our classrooms to soothe and calm students, including those suffering from anxiety issues and stressing out over common academic pressures? One school in San Diego is finding out—and the results are promising.

As explained by Bright, a publication covering innovation in education, Sejera the golden retriever is making waves as the school’s “facility dog”:

In a school that serves students whose families struggle in a variety of ways — poverty, neighborhood gangs, foster care, incarcerated parents — Sejera has become vital to many students’ emotional and psychological well-being.

This is no small job. Researchers over the last decade have amassed a sobering body of evidence showing the inability of stressed students to learn. If a kid is living in an abusive home, for example, or a violent neighborhood, his mind is physically incapable of absorbing lessons when he steps into the classroom. That’s before counting factors like hunger, physical impairment, or diagnosed learning disabilities.

That’s where dogs like Sejera come in. If an O’Farrell student is having a hard time in class, either emotionally or behaviorally, a teacher can send him to see Sejera. The student can play or cuddle with the dog, or just talk with her. Sejera’s calm, comforting presence can often be enough to enable a student to recover equilibrium and return to class.

Of course, the experiment’s popularity is tempered by plenty of caveats; for example, it’s not a “silver bullet” solution for struggling students, and more empirical research about the impact of therapy dogs in schools is needed to substantiate the anecdotal stories. Community concerns about dog allergies and bites would need to be assuaged as well. That said, Sejera’s handler and the school’s Family Support Service Coordinator, Mary Skrabucha, offers this gem to Bright:

For Skrabucha, the potential downsides of having and training a therapy dog are worth it. “There was this one girl,” Skrabucha told me, a seventh-grader. “Her mom died of a drug overdose. She was being raised by her great-grandmother. She had a lot of angry outbursts and the mouth of a truck driver.”

The girl came to Skrabucha’s office one day and asked to see Sejera alone. Skrabucha went into the hallway, and when she peeked inside, she saw that girl had lifted Sejera’s ear and talked to her for ten minutes.

When the girl came out, she told Skrabucha, “I’m okay, I can go back to class now.”

For more information, see “What If Schools Hired Dogs As Therapists?” Bright at Medium.com (2016).