Sometimes all it takes to relieve stress, calm down, even improve reading skills is a furry friend to pet or hug.
A few educators in the Flathead Valley are seeing the value a therapy dog can bring to schools in providing comfort, affection, education, physical and psychological support and entertainment. Rather than the occasional visit, these canine companions have become part of the staff at Summit Preparatory, Smith Valley School and Kalispell Montessori.
Therapy dogs are different from service animals. Unlike service animals that must not be distracted from performing specific tasks for people with disabilities, people are encouraged to pet and interact with therapy dogs. Therapy dogs are trained to have good manners and tolerate different environments, people and distractions, said Smith Valley Principal Laili Komenda.
On the morning of Dec. 7, Komenda is working in her office at Smith Valley School. Her dog Sitka — an Airedale terrier/border collie/Australian shepherd mix — is lying near her in a dog bed placed at desk level. As people enter her office he looks up with interest. He later nosed open a window curtain behind him to look outside.
“Sitka is such a big-hearted young dog,” Komenda said petting his head. “He is an easy dog to train. His language is love, attention and play. As long as he has that he loves his life.”
On her desk is a portrait of Sitka taken on school picture day. Komenda got Sitka with the sole purpose of training him as a therapy dog.
“My entire intention was having a therapy dog for kids in crisis,” Komenda said.
Komenda took Sitka through three different trainings, wanting him to be well-rounded before bringing him to school on a regular basis. Sitka additionally passed tests to become part of a national therapy dog program called Pet Partners in order to volunteer at places outside of Smith Valley.
Some of that training meant Sitka had to keep cool around crowds and other dogs, people running toward him and other sudden movements, or people fighting in a parking lot then approaching Sitka to pet him, as some examples.
At the beginning of the year, Komenda held an assembly and put Sitka’s training to work in helping demonstrate school — and dog — rules and behaviors.
“He gets to do some tricks and we share the rules students should follow,” Komenda said, the point being not to be disruptive.
Sitka demonstrated one of those rules to a third-grade classroom earlier this month. Students hid toys around the classroom. On command Sitka searched out the toys and put them away in a bucket.
For now, Sitka is kept on leash in the hallways during school hours. He is off leash when invited into a classroom.
Summit Preparatory School has an entire canine staff of eight and a committee of humans who run the dog show, said Summit Preparatory School Executive Director Todd Fiske. The dogs are owned by employees, but like Smith Valley, also require training before they are put into a schedule throughout the campus.
“For our training it’s about how they can engage with other people,” said Fiske. “Ultimately how do they work in our setting for self-soothing. They’re smile carriers. They’re about making your day,” Fiske said while petting his labradoodle Dexter in his office.
The dogs at Summit Preparatory are off leash and can be spotted among students and staff in hallways, classrooms and dormitories.
“There’s always a dog around,” said 16-year-old student Ellijah Larsen who has a family pet at home similar to one of the dogs at Summit, a Labrador named Molly.
Larsen said the dogs provide happiness, comfort and support. If Larsen is upset or sad, the dogs are there to talk to or cuddle without judgment.
The dogs provide a homey feeling at the therapeutic boarding school. Fiske recalled a recent memory of a student being dropped off at the school. Dexter walked up to the student who knelt down to greet him. He said it was a moment of relief that “OK I think I’m going to be OK.”
“And that’s the silent work [therapy dogs do] right there, in my mind,” Fiske said.
Before arriving at Summit Preparatory several years ago, Dexter served as a reading buddy in a public school.
“A student was brought in and the student was able to sit down on the floor and read to Dexter — who is a wonderful listener — and the teacher can stand behind that student and check off fluency, comprehension, word count all while that student may not have been comfortable reading to a small group or the teacher,” Fiske said.
On the chilly morning of Dec. 5, Sadie, a black Labrador bounded playfully along the perimeter of a basketball court outside Kalispell Montessori in expectant anticipation for students to finish their daily stretches and run a lap across the field and back. As soon as the students showed signs of starting to run, Sadie lunged forward as if it was a race and she wanted to win.
Once inside the school, students reached out to pet her as they walked toward their classrooms. Sadie roamed around before picking a spot to lie down among the children. Occasionally, students went over to give her a hug or lay beside her as they worked.
Some students clearly gravitate toward Sadie while others are somewhat indifferent. Sadie has grown up with the students. She started going to the school at 3 months old one or two afternoons a week, said teacher and Sadie’s owner Angela Hong. In February, Sadie will turn 2.
“Oftentimes she kind of knows a kid is having trouble,” Hong said. “A couple weeks ago a girl who generally never has trouble had taken a spelling test and hadn’t been happy how she had done on the spelling test, so she went into that little kitchen and she was crying. She [Sadie] went in there and she curled up at her feet. The girl worked in there all morning and she stayed there all morning with that child.”
Sadie joins the cadre of school pets that includes a bearded dragon, guinea pig and tarantula.
“In Montessori, we’re not only looking at the education of the child as far as academics. We look at their social, emotional growth, are they well balanced are they happy,” Hong said. “And for some of these kids, Sadie touches a part of their soul that nothing else I have in the environment.”
In all three schools insurance and care is the responsibility of the dog owners not the schools. At Smith Valley, Komenda said there were questions on the safety of bringing a dog regularly to school.
“There were questions with the school board for a little while of course — and legitimately because they want to make sure we’re not putting the school at risk,” Komenda said. “And you don’t want just any dog. Kids know the rules, but it will be a distraction at first. The more kids get to know him it becomes less of a novelty.”
“I think having people understand that it is really is something that benefits kids [is a challenge]. I think it’s a more modern idea,” she said.
The educators all said they work with families if there is an allergy, which Kalispell Montessori had two instances of. Grooming and regular bathing is essential.
Hong pointed out that there has also been an instance of accommodating a student who was afraid of dogs. Eventually, she said he saw other children’s positive interactions with Sadie.
“Then over time he realized he had enough good associations with her. Now he’s one of the closest to Sadie,” Hong said as the student walked over to pet the dog.
Part of assuaging concerns is clear communication and setting a framework of policies and guidelines.
Ultimately Fiske said, “We have to set the framework for thinking outside the box on how to educate kids. If these are good tools to help our kids have stronger ties to the classroom, educational work and curriculum, then I’m all for it.”
Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.