Monday, February 6, 2017

Therapy dog enhances learning at elementary school

Highland Goffe’s-Falls Elementary School’s newest staff member is a three-year-old golden retriever and a certified therapy dog. Since he started his duties once a week, Remington has been a welcome addition to the school community.

“Earlier in my career, I was a reading specialist,” said principal Susan Matthews. “I’d researched the benefits of using therapy dogs in education, and it was always a dream of mine to pursue it.”

A fortunate coincidence brought the opportunity to Highland this year. One of the school’s paraprofessionals, Gail Dubois, is Remington’s handler. The dog has taken obedience and other training classes to earn various certifications, including membership in Therapy Dogs International. Dubois agreed it would be a great idea to include sessions with Remington in some of the work she already does with students. It costs the school nothing.

To get the program started, the parents of students in the classrooms where Dubois provides assistance were asked permission to allow Remington to interact with their children. All signed off on the concept, and only one child has an allergy to dogs. In that situation, on the days Remington is at school, Dubois and her student work one-on-one in another room so the allergic child isn’t affected.

For the students who have dogs at home, Remington is a familiar comfort. For those who don’t, the dog offers a new experience. And Matthews’ original vision of helping students practice reading skills is one benefit realized.

“I think Remington helps kids who are struggling with literacy because dogs are non-judgmental,” said Dubois. “Children have an audience while reading aloud, but Remington helps them become less anxious and more comfortable.”

Dubois spends part of every day in a first grade classroom, where all the students take turns reading to Remington as time allows during small group work. During regular class lessons, the dog is happy to lay down and wait while Dubois performs her other responsibilities as a paraprofessional, a position she’s held for 17 years in Manchester.

Another area of early success is behavior improvement. Dubois works with a third grader who responds well to Remington. Perhaps a more surprising result of Remington’s presence at school is the effect he has on a student with cerebral palsy. The boy walks independently but does have mobility challenges.

“When he walks next to Remington, holding his harness, you can see his posture and confidence change,” said Matthews.   

That’s prompting Highland staff to think about other ways Remington might help students in occupational or physical therapy sessions. Children could exercise muscles by brushing Remington, for instance.

For now, Remington works at Highland once a week, but the growing interest in his services could lead to additional time at school.

“Remington is not the magic solution, but he’s one more tool that makes the team of teachers, specialists and resources stronger to help children succeed,” Dubois said.

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