Therapy dogs have been visiting local schools to "read" with children, calm tantrums and to just "be there" for those suffering emotional distress.
When a car crash claimed the life of a popular Lake High School cheerleader, school officials not only called upon local clergy and counselors, they also welcomed Mason and five other four-footed friends.
Mason, a 3-year-old golden retriever that has belonged to the school system since fall 2016, was joined by fellow therapy dogs in visiting grief-stricken young people at the school, providing what administrators describe as a temporary yet effective comfort following the tragic death of senior Macie Behringer.
Many young people, who had difficulty expressing their emotions, appeared to find instant comfort by petting or simply seeing the dogs, Lake Local Schools Superintendent Kevin Tobin said.
"In light of tragedy, we saw first-hand how very, very effective (support dogs) are in helping people deal with loss and pain," he said. "We've watched our dog comfort young people who are suffering and, when you see it first-hand, it kind of hits you like a brick: This is so needed. This is really cool."
Man's best friend has long been used as a therapeutic addition to treat emotional pain or distress. Akron Children's Hospital celebrated 25 years of its Doggie Brigade last summer, according to a hospital publication.
"(Dogs) influence social, emotional, and cognitive development in children, promote an active lifestyle, and have even been able to detect oncoming epileptic seizures or the presence of certain cancers," according to the Centers for Disease Control, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The American Kennel Club points out "visits from a therapy dog can lower blood pressure and heart rate, reduce patient anxiety, and increase levels of endorphins and oxytocin."
The Americans with Disabilities Act recognizes three types of support animals, primarily dogs: service, therapy and emotional. The ADA also recognizes miniature horses as service animals.
The duty of dogs
Service and therapy dogs are trained. Emotional support animals, such as the peacock United Airlines refused to let board their plane a few weeks ago, are not. (Since that incident, Delta announced it will not allow exotic emotional support animals.)
Service dogs are specifically trained to assist one person — the person suffering from a disability, such as deafness or blindness. According to the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, service dogs can also alert or protect a person having a seizure, remind a person with mental illness to take prescribed medicine and sense and/or react to calm a person suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder during an anxiety attack.
Therapy dogs also are trained, but they are not considered service dogs because they are not trained to perform a specific task for only one person suffering a disability. They are used to comfort many. These dogs typically visit hospitals, prisons, schools and other facilities such as nursing homes and assisted living centers.
Dogs in schools
"(Therapy) dogs still have the right disposition to be where there are," said Debby Petroff, a retired educator who taught at Field Local Schools for 35 years and has brought her English shepherds to local schools, hospitals and other facilities for at-risk youth. Petroff and her dogs, Rocky and Brutus, have visited several schools in Stark County along with her weekly visits to Plain Local. "Therapy dogs are well-trained animals. They have to tolerate everything — people yelling in the room or bumping into them with maybe a wheelchair walker."
Mason joined Lake as an "employee" in November 2016 as a specially trained therapy dog. He spends mornings at Hartville Elementary School with students and his afternoons in the adjoining Lake Elementary School. At night, Mason goes home with Katy Yoder, Hartville Elementary's school counselor. She and Shirley Oberdier, Lake Elementary's school counselor, were trained as his handlers.
He is school district-owned, Yoder said. "I'm sort of like his foster parent," she said.
His mission is to improve moods, relieve anxiety and alleviate behavioral issues, according to school publications. School officials say they've seen a dramatic calm in a child in the midst of a tantrum when the dog suddenly saunters into the room.
Yoder also takes him off-leash to visit classrooms and join children in their educational activities, such as reading.
Although he's the only four-footed employee Lake owns, Uniontown kindergarten teacher Jeannie Bussey also brings her Bernese mountain dogs, Sir Orik and Faith, to the Uniontown school, and to Akron Children's Hospital as part of the Doggie Brigade.
"(Some kids) will talk to the dogs and tell them things they wouldn't share with anyone else," Bussey said. When she's taken her dogs into schools where teenagers have experienced a devastating loss, "you can't believe the change in the demeanor of the kids. They're smiling and talking."
The four-footed friends quickly calm children with behavior issues, but they're pretty good listeners, too, teachers say.
"The kids are good at reading to the dog because the dog is not going to tell them that they mispronounced a word. A dog accepts them for who they are," Petroff said.
She takes her therapy dogs to several schools, including Perry and Plain school districts. She is joined at Warstler Elementary, where first-grade teacher Tina Cogan also brings her labrador-mixed breed Apollo about once a week to school.
"A number of kids like to read to (the dogs)," said Warstler Principal Mark Yocum. "If a student is agitated or just having a bad day, they'll visit maybe Apollo for a few minutes and suddenly the world's good. There's a definite calming effect."
Reach Lori at 330-580-8309 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter: @lsteineckREP