Therapy dogs making move from hospital to classroom

Patient, trained canines prove to be good listening partners for young readers

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

Published:

 
photoTherapy dog Stella, who belongs to Krista Anderson, of Ridgefield, patiently listens to first-graders in Michelle Lewellen’s classroom read out loud at Woodland Primary School.

(/The Columbian)

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Did you know?

Therapy dogs typically provide comfort to people in hospitals, hospices, assisted-living facilities or schools.

Most therapy dogs are certified and registered through Therapy Dogs International, a New Jersey-based nonprofit that started in 1976.

In recent years, therapy dogs have been used to comfort victims of natural disasters or cataclysmic events, such as Hurricane Katrina and 9/11.

Clark County residents interested in certifying their dogs can contact Donna Schoonover at 360-887-9065.

WOODLAND — Lunging forward with a stretch, 11-year-old Raika cozies up to the carpet at Woodland Primary School in front of two first-graders. Comfortably sprawled on the floor, the slim, full-bred German shepherd raises her eyes as the young readers begin to tell her a tale.

First-grader Harry Eddington, 6, sidles up close to Raika and pats her head gently between pages. The story he’s reading is about mammals.

“Get closer,” the dog’s handler, Donna Schoonover, tells Harry. Raika, a licensed therapy dog, wants to hang on Harry’s every word.

It’s the student’s second time reading to the gentle dog, and Harry brims with excitement and knowledge. He looks forward to his visits from Raika.

“I know wolves are dogs,” he says matter-of-factly, expressing some of the information he’s learned from the book he’s reading, “and I like them.”

Wolf-like Raika, and a small collection of other dogs, are part of a growing effort at Woodland Primary School. First-grade teachers there are using man’s best friend as a way of getting students to read.

The students are asked to take turns gathering in small groups around the dogs and reading to them from books.

Yanking gently on a dog leash, as Raika rears back to clean her nether regions, Schoonover explains exactly why she’s been bringing her dog to the school for the past year. “Dogs are just very relaxing,” she says.

And more than that, they come with a couple of other upsides that dog owners have known since time immemorial: They appear to listen intently and, perhaps most important, can’t talk back. Educators say they’re the perfect reading pals for young kids.

In a classroom across the hall, first-grader Jenna Elizabeth Oathes, 7, agrees.

“It’s better to buddy-read with the dog, because she doesn’t talk,” she says.

She’s just finished reading to a 2-year-old Norwich terrier named Stella, dressed up in a Christmas-themed collar as if she’s just walked out of Santa’s workshop.

The program could be considered a case of sweet meets scholastic.

What started as a pilot program in one classroom last year is in the midst of a popularity explosion at the primary school.

Students feel comfortable reading to the dogs, first-grade teacher Andrea Edwards says. Last year, she had the idea of bringing therapy dogs into her classroom through a program called “Tail Waggin’ Tutors” after watching a television program about dogs with jobs.

After coaxing administrators into allowing dogs into the classroom, she introduced students to Raika.

The dog was an immediate draw.

Some parents now ask for their kids to be placed in Edwards’ classroom because “it’s the one with dogs,” she says.

This year, other first-grade teachers told administrators they also wanted to participate in the program, and the pilot program expanded.

Medical professionals have long noted that being around dogs tends to lower blood pressure and anxiety in people. In the classroom, those therapeutic qualities can help students keep their focus on reading, therapy dog advocates say.

But with demand for the dogs growing, the supply is shrinking.

“There aren’t enough dogs,” Edwards says.

So far, only a handful of volunteers can make it to the school regularly. It takes a certain type of person to set aside the time necessary to do it, but with a larger pool of volunteers, more reading times could be scheduled.

For her part, Schoonover makes it into the classroom about once a month. An employee of the Oregon Department of Transportation, Schoonover uses her vacation time to set aside days for her visits. Even then, it doesn’t seem like it’s enough time. “I wish I could do it more often,” she says.

Time constraints aren’t the only hurdle. Dog owners must first train, certify and register their dogs — typically through Therapy Dogs International, a volunteer group that provides opportunities for canine visitations. Certification costs $10, while an annual registration fee comes to $45.

Therapy dogs such as Raika and Stella come in all breeds and sizes. But they all have in common a few important characteristics: They’re amiable and well-behaved, both with people and other animals. And they’re all vetted before going out into the field.

Chris Cornell is a retired engineer and therapy dog volunteer from Sequim who certifies therapy dogs throughout the state. He says it’s important to weed out any problem dogs before placing them in classrooms or hospitals.

“Most dogs can pass the certification test,” Cornell says. “I just want to make sure the dog isn’t aggressive, that the dog can get along with people and other dogs.”

It’s also becoming increasingly important for them to get along well with children. Although therapy dogs have been used in hospitals and hospices for years as a way of comforting patients, the idea of bringing them into classrooms has only slowly gained momentum over the past decade.

“Schools realized it was a smart idea for kids to read to dogs,” Cornell said.

Schoonover says she’s seen it firsthand.

She says helping children learn makes volunteering worth it.

“Even if they aren’t dog people,” Schoonover says, “the dogs can be so calming.”


Tyler Graf: 360-735-4517; http://twitter.com/col_smallcities; tyler.graf@columbian.com.