Therapy dog program comes to Lyndhurst Public Schools

Nov. 20, 2022

By Emilia Calabrese

Before the end of the school year, students will notice some furry friends sauntering around their schools. This is because the Lyndhurst Public School District is implementing a therapy dog program to boost class attendance, improve focus and raise self-esteem among students.

The idea for this program dates back to 2019 when director of Student Services Ms. Stevens attended a conference where she encountered a presenter who discussed the physical and emotional benefits of therapy dog programs in schools. She liked the concept and set out to conduct research and write a policy, which the Board of Education approved in January.

“It is going to increase positivity in the school,” Stevens said. “We are creating an empathetic community by having a therapy dog program and giving our students access to the animals to create a warm, welcoming environment that supports their mental health.”

The program is made possible by an organization called Attitudes In Reverse: Paws For Minds, which is conducting a 30-week training program that will end in May.

Stevens said this program differs from others in the county because it allows the Lyndhurst School District’s own faculty and staff to enroll their dogs for training.

For a faculty member’s dog to participate in the program, it was required to be appropriately vaccinated and at least a year old.

Five teachers, two of whom work at LHS, applied and were all admitted to the program. Through grants and the district’s regular budget, $26,000 was allocated toward training the dogs.

Training sessions began in June at Lyndhurst Middle School and take place for about an hour every Saturday morning.

Stevens said the real work is done at home because there is only one training session per week.

“You learn a skill on Saturday, but then you have to practice that skill for the rest of the week. It is a lot of work and time-consuming, but ultimately they need to pass the test so they can become therapy dogs,” Stevens said.

English teacher Mrs. Ruiz said when she adopted her 10-week-old Miniature Australian Shepherd Roxie in May, she never dreamed her furry family member would one day offer comfort to hundreds of students from across the district. 

Ruiz said she decided to enroll her dog in the program because she liked the idea of bringing Roxie to school and having her trained at a young age. 

When Ruiz applied for the program, Roxie did not meet the age requirement but was able to participate after being approved by a professional trainer. 

Ruiz said despite Roxie’s youth, she is doing fairly well and is even used as an example during training. 

“Because she’s the youngest one in the class, [the trainers] always say she’s the baby and going through an adolescent phase, but for the most part, she really is so successful,” Ruiz said.

 She said Roxie is learning but still struggles with a hands-free leash.

“It is those things that we have to continue to reinforce throughout the week, but it is nice to go through this process,” Ruiz said. 

Ruiz said she would like Roxie’s silly personality and fun demeanor to come across when she interacts with people.

“She gives me these adorable eyes and some kisses, and I hope that she could do that for others too,” Ruiz said. “Any time that I’ve ever been down, I go to Roxie for that snuggle. It takes you away. It makes you go somewhere else.”

At the beginning of the year when Stevens sent out an email about the program, choir director Ms. Wise said she was immediately interested in enrolling her dog Teddy, a one-and-a-half-year-old Maltipoo, in the program. 

“When I heard what a therapy dog is supposed to do in terms of making people feel comfortable and giving people an outlet, I thought, ‘Teddy already does this naturally,’” Wise said.

She said keeping up with the training at the middle school and at home is a major commitment because Teddy can be resistant.

“Any time that I’ve ever been down, I go to Roxie for that snuggle. It takes you away. It makes you go somewhere else.”

“He knows all his commands but only does really well when he wants to. So, [I] have to get him to be less stubborn and when [I] tell him to do something, to actually do it,” Wise said. 

She said she hopes Teddy will be able to offer comfort to students the way he comforts her. 

“When I come home from a stressful day, I can’t wait to pet my little puppy, and he just sits there all loving and beautiful,” Wise said. “I really do think that the joy of having a dog in our school environment is going to bring a lot more happiness and something for people, especially emotionally struggling students.”

Wise said the program differs from other forms of therapeutic activities like coloring, meditation and yoga because the person receiving comfort does not need to put in effort. 

“You just have to kind of be yourself and enjoy the love of a canine,” Wise said. 

Junior Nicole Graziani, who is a member of the Animal Welfare Club, said she expects the therapy dog program to reduce the stress and anxiety students may experience.

“Animals can tell when we are not feeling our best, and they sit close to us… Just the presence of an animal alone makes me feel better. They are just so playful and snuggly,” Graziani said.

She said therapy dogs can provide students with a much-needed distraction from reality.

“Having a dog in the classroom could relieve students from the struggles that could be going on at home or school,” Graziani said. “Dogs provide a kind of unconditional love that… lasts for a lifetime.”

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