Big dogs on campus

Published 1:53 pm Saturday, September 18, 2010

Students in LaChelle Sandon's class at Halverson pet Poet. Poet is the new therapy dog at Lakeview and was visiting Halverson for the afternoon. -- Kelli Lageson/Albert Lea Tribune

Social workers and staff at the four elementary schools in Albert Lea have started using a unique program that has shown immediate effects on schoolchildren.

Two of the elementary schools, Hawthorne and Halverson, have been using therapy dogs to much success. Lakeview just started using a dog this school year, and Sibley will soon have a therapy dog used in some capacity as well.

Therapy dogs are unique in many ways and have been used in schools, nursing homes and hospitals. The dogs must be trained and pass tests to be certified as a therapy dog.

From left to right are Jeanne Hendrickson, Kim Anderson and Teri Nelson. The dogs from left to right are Emma, Camden, Poet and Cruiser.

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“Our dogs know what their job is when they come to school,” Halverson social worker Teri Nelson said. “They know their purpose.”

Their jobs are varied depending on the school and the social worker who handles the dog. Retired Hawthorne case facilitator, Jeanne Hendrickson, now brings her dog, Emma, part time so kids can read to the dog.

“She’ll lay by the child, and they’ll read to her for 15 minutes,” Hendrickson said.

She said the children enjoy sitting with Emma, petting her and reading to her. Emma also works at the public library in the summer during the reading program for the same purpose.

“A dog changes the atmosphere at the school,” Hendrickson said.

Hendrickson, Nelson and Lakeview social worker Kim Anderson agreed that children and staff are happier and more efficient after being around the therapy dogs. They also agreed that children like the dogs because dogs don’t judge them — they like all the children.

From left are Cruiser, Halverson’s therapy dog, Camden, Emma, Hawthorne’s therapy dog and Poet, Lakeview’s therapy dog. Camden will be working at Sibley later this year.

Children “get unconditional love from these animals,” Anderson said.

The dogs are purchased, cared for and trained by the handlers and are no expense to the school district. Training and working with the dogs also does not count toward continued learning for the handlers. The handlers agreed that the expenses and extra work are worth the effort for the benefits the dogs bring to students.

“This is volunteer work on our part, but it’s very rewarding work,” Anderson said.

The handlers have to keep the dogs healthy with a good diet and exercise. All three women agreed that the work was worth the rewards.

“They can do what we cannot do,” Nelson said.

One example is the calming effect the dogs have over the children. Students can also be persuaded to calm down and as a reward then they can pet the dog. Also, for students who don’t trust adults the dogs can be a confidant. Nelson gave the example of one of her past students who was having problems at home. The student would come to Nelson’s office and brush the dog and talk to it in Spanish, and then she would be able to go about her day. Nelson said she didn’t know what the student was saying, but that the student just needed a friend. The dogs have different talents and are used differently depending on their training.

A student in LaChelle Sandon's class at Halverson pets Poet, a therapy dog. Students enjoy the short time they can spend with the dogs, and the teachers say it calms the students.

“Emma can be used to de-escalate students,” Hendrickson said.

Students completing tasks with Anderson are eager to be successful so they can spend time with Poet, the new full-time therapy dog at Lakeview. Nelson said she thinks the dogs enjoy their work as much as the children enjoy spending time with them.

“Every morning Cruiser’s ready to go to school,” Nelson said.

Hendrickson said with what she’s seen Emma do at the school and with specific children, she’d have liked to have a therapy dog many years ago. Another reason kids like the dogs is that some students can’t have pets at home for whatever reason, and they feel like the handler’s dog is also theirs.

“They change the atmosphere just by being there,” Hendrickson said.

Nelson agreed and said the dogs make the students feel welcome. The dogs are handpicked from the litter for certain reasons including temperament and then go through rigorous training before testing to become certified by Therapy Dogs International.

All three handlers agreed that administration at the elementary schools has been supportive of the therapy dogs.

“They have knowledge of what a therapy dog can provide,” Nelson said.

Poet was listed as a new staff member at Lakeview and was featured in a newsletter that’s sent to parents. Anderson also made sure to talk to the nurse about any persons at the school with allergies.

“You have to be careful when bringing a dog into school,” Anderson said.

LaChelle Sandon, left, and a few of her students pet Cruiser and Poet during a break at Halverson. The dogs' handlers say the dogs bring many benefits to students and staff.

While any necessary precautions have been taken by the handlers, they also stressed that these are not just any dogs. These therapy dogs have been through a lot of training and are much more calm than most dogs. The dogs have also been trained not to jump and rarely bark. The handlers also said they realize not all children love dogs.

“We’re respectful of kids who are afraid of dogs,” Nelson said.

Hendrickson has worked with Emma in many situations including at the public library and in hospitals. Emma is perfect for schools because she doesn’t get anxious when many kids pet her at one time. Nelson said children just perk up when they see the dog in the hall, and they follow the rules by asking the handlers if they can pet the dogs.

“They like seeing Cruiser in the halls,” Nelson said.

LaChelle Sandon, a special education teacher at Halverson, said just seeing the dogs for a few minutes relaxes the students.

“It really calms the kids,” Sandon said.

Fourth-grade teacher Shelly Burkard agreed that the dog has a calming effect on the students and said she tries to see Cruiser every day.

So far Albert Lea has therapy dogs only in elementary schools. Hendrickson’s daughter, Stephanie Rowe, will be bringing her dog, Camden, to Sibley later this year. The handlers agreed therapy dogs would benefit the middle school and high school, but someone has to be willing to pay, care for and train a dog, which is not easy.

Parents and community members can meet a few of the school therapy dogs who are also performance dogs at the Kennel Club’s Meet the Breed event on Oct. 10 from 1 to 4 p.m. at Northbridge Mall.