Therapy dogs serve Nebraska students, staff


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BEATRICE, Neb. (AP) — Listening to a good book, going for a walk and spreading lots of love are all in a day's work for three dogs in the Norris school district.

Bella, Izzy and Abbie are part of the EduPUPS pet therapy program at Norris. The dogs spend their days in the elementary, intermediate and middle school buildings, with occasional visitors from the high school.

EduPUPS is a division of Domesti-PUPS, a therapy and service dog organization based in Lincoln, the Beatrice Daily Sun reported (http://bit.ly/1yt0CC1 ).

Bella, the program's newest pup, will turn 2 in January. She started as a therapy dog for the intermediate school on Sept. 23 after she and her handler, Christina Boesiger, completed the necessary training.

Boesiger teaches fourth grade at Norris and recently began bringing Bella to school with her. The goal is to have the golden retriever-poodle mix in class every day.

"Kids are just open to dogs," Boesiger said.

The two completed training over the summer, along with Boesiger's husband Christopher and two daughters.

The training lasted several months and consisted of basic obedience lessons and interacting with other dogs and humans in a variety of situations. Bella made visits to nursing homes to interact with senior citizens. At the end of the training, Boesiger and Bella had to pass a test with 27 different challenges.

Those challenges, Boesiger said, consisted of basic obedience skills, navigating through angry crowds and tolerating loud noises.

Now in the classroom, Bella is a hypoallergenic breed, so she doesn't shed much fur and isn't a problem for children with allergies.

"I think it's a calming thing for kids," Boesiger said.

She added that part of the process is showing her students the appropriate way to interact with Bella.

"It's training the kids, too. After a semester, she might be able to go out with other teachers to other classrooms," she said.

Izzy, a 7-year-old goldendoodle, has spent the last four years at the elementary school, making friends with students and teachers alike. Children hug her, talk to her when they're feeling down and read her books to help with their learning and social skills.

"One young man we have was afraid of dogs when he started here last year," said Valorie Fossberg. "Now, he's been exposed to (Izzy), so he's not freaking out every time he sees a dog."

Fossberg, a resource teacher at the school, shares the responsibility of Izzy with first-grade teacher Torey Dudley, the dog's owner.

Izzy spends her time traveling from classroom to classroom, sometimes dropping in on students as a class reward or stopping by to help a student through a tough day.

"We knew she had the personality and would be the best dog to be at school," Dudley said. "It takes a pretty special dog with the right personality."

Dudley and Fossberg include Izzy in their curriculum planning, dressing her up in costumes on special days to match book characters.

When students write stories, Dudley encourages them to write as much as they can. The longer the story, the more time each student gets to spend reading one-on-one with Izzy.

In addition to students with special needs, anger problems or other conditions, teachers also use the dog as therapy on stressful days.

"Sometimes teachers just come in and say, 'Can I have an Izzy fix?'" Fossberg said.

Some students from the high school even get involved, taking Izzy for walks or runs around the school campus.

Izzy goes to school three days a week. Fossberg said therapy dogs, like humans, get exhausted when working in stressful situations.

The dog greets students as they get off the busses in the morning and bids them farewell when they leave for the day.

"The possibilities of what you can do with a therapy dog are endless," Fossberg said.

Dudley said getting therapy dogs into Norris schools was a bit of a challenge at first. Although the dogs were trained, the handlers had to convince the administration to allow the program.

"It was a little bit of a tough sell initially. We had to get the support with the school administration," she said.

Now, most staff are on board and use the dogs whenever possible.

Abbie, an 8-year-old boxer, is in her sixth year at Norris Middle School. Her handler, Lisa Brown, brings her to school every day.

"A lot of times, she knows when to go to a student and when to sit back," Brown said.

Students who may have a breakdown during the day or a violent reaction first have to calm down enough for Brown to allow them near the dog. This usually helps the student calm down and begin to express his or her feelings in a healthier way.

Abbie and the other dogs do a lot to help students socially, teaching about friendship, personal space and other social skills.

Superintendent John Skretta said the program has been a big asset to the students and staff in the district.

"These companion animals provide a great means of support for students and have become treasured additions to the Norris team," he said.

Domesti-PUPS research shows that companion animals like Bella, Izzy and Abbie aid in the development of patience, emotional control and self-discipline. They serve as a source of love and validation for children and teach the responsibility that goes along with caring for a pet.

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Information from: Beatrice Sun, http://www.beatricedailysun.com

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Beatrice Daily Sun

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Emily Hemphill

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