Therapy dogs at Albert Lea schools

Published 9:24 am Thursday, December 16, 2010

There is something happening in Albert Lea Area Schools that may be unique to any other school system in the state or perhaps the country. The schools are the beneficiary of not one, but four very special volunteers. Each of the four elementary schools has a registered therapy dog working in their buiding. Research shows that a therapy dog can inspire people to maintain good health, remove stress and even help cope with life’s challenges.

Lakeview Elementary School Social Worker Kim Anderson poses for a photo with her therapy dog, Poet. -- Submitted photo

Retired school staff person, Jeanne Hendrickson volunteers at Hawthorne Elementary School with her registered therapy dog, Emma, and her daughter Stephanie Rowe volunteers with her dog Camden at Sibley Elementary School. These teams visit the schools where students sit and read to the dogs. The reading program helps children improve their self-esteem, reading scores and literacy skills while learning to respect animals and have fun reading. This is known as an Animal-Assisted Activity as described below.

The Key Features of AAA

• Specific treatment goals are not planned for each visit.

• Volunteers and treatment providers are not required to take detailed notes.

• Visit content is spontaneous and visits last as long or as short as needed.

Lakeview Elementary school social worker Kim Anderson and Halverson Elementary school social worker Teri Nelson incorporate their love and respect of animals into their daily work with students. Both school social workers use their therapy dogs in animal-assisted activities and animal-assisted therapy.

Although therapy dogs and their handlers typically work as volunteers, when certain criteria are in place aspects of their therapuetic work actually help bring revenue into the school system through third party billing activities. All four handlers obtained, train and care for their dogs voluntarily, at no cost to the school district. Not just any dog can work as a therapy animal. Registered therapy dogs require special training and must posses a certain temperament. They are required to pass stringent evaluations that test their ability to follow the handler’s directions and to handle stressful situations when they arise.

Students pet Halverson Elementary School’s therapy dog, Cruiser. -- Submitted photo

Poet, a registered golden retriever and his handler Anderson, are registered through the national organization the Delta Society as a therapy team. Cruiser, a minature poodle, is registered through the organization, Therapy Dogs International. Cruiser works with Nelson at Halverson. Both dogs bring important talents to their school setting that humans simply can not provide.

Studies show that working and learning in an environment with an animal actually has certain health benefits such as a decrease in heart rate as well as blood pressure. Therapy dogs also help to increase socialization. These factors help lead to a longer, healthier life. Recent brain research shows that learning becomes extremely difficult when strong emotions are being experienced. Therapy dogs are used successfully in de-escalating and calming students.

Students at Halverson and Lakeview said when they are with the dogs they have a better day. They also said the animals just know how they’re feeling, and they can be themselves with the dogs.