Therapy Dogs Help Reduce Students’ Anxiety and Stress and Bring Smiles to DCSD Students and Staff

Therapy Dogs Help Reduce Students’ Anxiety and Stress and Bring Smiles to DCSD Students and Staff
Posted on 02/14/2023

Friendly dogs who calmly travel alongside their handlers are becoming more common throughout the Douglas County School District (DCSD) as Animal-Assisted Intervention (AAI) programs are on the rise. DCSD currently has eight teams of therapy dogs and their handlers assisting students including School Resource Officers (SROs) and school staff (counselors, teachers, and specialists).

Therapy dogs play an essential role in helping students experiencing issues like anxiety and depression and those dealing with trauma or fear. They can also help students who need a smile and a calming presence and those just having a tough day. 

Therapy dogs must earn their certification, which includes socialization training with walks in crowded places, being surrounded by loud noises, and playing out scenarios that kids may exhibit when they are struggling. The dogs also are trained to handle things that might occur during a passing peri
od when 1,500+ students are making their way to all areas of the school. Another test is to lie down for five minutes and not interact with another nearby dog. 

Laura Wilson is a mental health provider and an animal-assisted social worker who supports students in the Affective Needs Program at Ponderosa High School. Wilson and her therapy dog, Daphne, are a friendly duo that offers the professional services of a social worker and the critical benefits of a specially-trained canine. 

“Daphne’s my pet at home and my coworker at Ponderosa,” said Wilson.

Daphne the therapy dog sitting on a couchming out of the pandemic, Wilson said she’s noticed an increase in studentswith anxiety and depression. “They’ve all experienced the pandemic, and some have experienced loss, plus the effects of isolation,” she said. 

It’s not surprising that people’s moods improve after being around a dog. Did you know that petting a dog is a mutually-beneficial experience? Simply petting a dog releases happy hormones or oxytocin, the chemicals that fight off depression and anxiety. And dogs experience happiness when someone pets them. 

Although therapy dogs and their handlers primarily work with an assigned group of students, such as those receiving counseling or needing help in the classroom, they also interact with the entire study body. Therapy dogs can help students and staff who fear dogs by offering an opportunity to interact with them safely. And therapy dogs also can provide comfort to students and staff during safety drills. Dogs have empathy and can understand human emotions. 

Wilson is quick to point out that therapy dogs can burn out at their job, and that’s why they typically only work three days a week. 

“Daphne takes in every emotion she experiences,” said Wilson. “Dogs, like people, need coping skills. Dogs need to play, run, nap, and decompress between work days.” 

And we all need a place of our own. Daphne has a crate at work she can choose to go to when she needs some alone time.

Wilson oversees the dog therapy program for DCSD. Therapy dog certification can run $1,000 (certification alone) - $5,000 (which includes extensive training to prepare for the test.) Recertification every two years can cost up to $150. Liability insurance runs $250 - $1,000 per year, depending on the organization/agency that the teams are working with. Vaccines need to be kept current, along with yearly vet checks. Dogs need a c
Daphne the therapy dog with her handler Laura Wilson at Ponderosa High Schoolrate or a safe space and treats for good behavior rewards. Implementing a dog therapy program in a school can be expensive, but it pays great dividends. There’s a professional development class for people to learn how to utilize their dogs in a work setting. Handlers need to advocate for their dog. DCSD’s Mental Health Department is working to find ways to help financially support this vital program. 

Reading Interventionist Tricia de Gala and her therapy dog, Maisie, help students at Roxborough Intermediate; School Psychologist Barb Loughran and her therapy dog, Deeker, are at Plum Creek Academy; Spanish Teacher Cathy Kaminski and Kona are at Cresthill Middle School; Counselor Liz Van Otten and Andie are at Frontier Valley Elementary; and Social Worker Lisa German and Vader are at Legend High School. Nala is a therapy dog in training, and when she receives her certification, she will work at Sand Creek Elementary in Highlands Ranch.
The role of each dog is consistent in that they are there to provide social/emotional support to students and staff. A dog working with a teacher may support more academic-related goals; a dog working with a mental health provider may support mental health needs. 

Those in DCSD who want to start an Animal-Assisted Intervention program with a certified therapy dog in their school can complete the Therapy Animal Request Form. The DCSD Animal-Assisted Intervention Committee offers training and professional development for new therapy dog handlers in the district and supports current AAI programs. The committee meets to update forms, provide resources and support for existing programs, evaluate prospective programs, and educate district employees and the community.  To learn more, visit our website.
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