Dogs provide comfort, stress relief for worried students

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MANCHESTER, Conn. (AP) — Therapy dogs and their stress-relieving, anxiety-reducing abilities long have been used in places like hospitals and nursing homes. Now they're heading to schools to help stressed-out students.

At Manchester Community College's library this week, dogs from the Vernon organization Tails of Joy spent several hours with students, helping them relax during the hectic and complicated finals period.

While the dogs are no strangers to schools, this is their first time at MCC. If they go over well, they'll likely be back next year.

Paula Pini, the associate director of the school's library, said students were excited to see the dogs.

"Animals put you at ease," Pini said. The animals provide stress relief in a stressful time, she said. "We're happy to do that for students this semester."

Laurel Rabschutz, who coordinates college campus visits for Tails of Joy, said the organization tries to reach 10 to 15 schools each year. She brings her two dogs to local colleges during finals periods— her Newfoundland, Dooley, and Portuguese water dog, Iggy, are minor celebrities at the University of Connecticut and other area colleges.

At college visits, trained handlers and their dogs meet students in an area "off the beaten path." Students sit with the dogs in circles or large crowds, taking turns petting, hugging, or talking to them. Each dog usually spends about an hour working with students.

"There's a lot of evidence animal interaction can help psychologically and physically," Rabschutz said. "They can lower blood pressure, lower anxiety, and even serve as a 'social lubricant.'

"If you have a dog, people will say something. It's a great way to spur a conversation," Rabschutz said.

Interacting with a dog can help students who are stressed about a project distract themselves and relax for a moment.

If they're struggling with loneliness or feeling isolated on a large campus, the experience can help them calm down, "give them something to connect to, something familiar, fight off sadness," Rabschutz continued.

After visiting UConn in December 2013, Tails of Joy put up a whiteboard where students could write comments. Serious comments were strewn amid the happy posts. "The dogs kept me from jumping out the window," one comment said.

That comment gave Rabschutz pause. While it may have been an exaggeration, it shows the program can make a difference, Rabschutz said.

If handlers notice a student seems withdrawn or shows signs of distress, they will refer them to support services, Rabschutz said. The dogs themselves love the attention and the interaction, she said.

Dogs aren't limited to colleges or finals week, either.

In Manchester Public Schools, there are three therapy dogs helping students. Buckley Elementary hosts a Maltese, Sara Jane, and her handler, Kristen Akeley, who work with students with autism. Mastiff mix Brutus works with his handler, Nicole Polino, in her role as a speech pathologist.

The biggest celebrity of the three dogs is the smallest— Gizmo, a 3½-pound mi-ki, works with his handler, Jenifer Adams, a special education teacher, spending two days a week at Manchester High.

Gizmo is available to students throughout MHS, even if they aren't experiencing a specific crisis in their lives. "On any given day," Adams said, "he's a calming agent for anxiety, a focusing tool, very grounding. Sometimes he helps them focus on what's in front of them."

Adams said a student once came to see Gizmo, needing to write a big paper. She sat at the computer with him in her lap and finished the intimidating assignment in one sitting, evidence of his effects.

Students can ask to see Gizmo when they have free periods. "After visits, kids are calmer and they have big smiles," Adams said. "I often hear them tell Gizmo, 'I love you.'"

Students with anger-management issues and self-esteem problems, too, benefit from time with Gizmo, Adams continued.

"Some people think" the dog "would be distracting, but we're finding the opposite to be true."

Dogs are also used with students having difficulty learning, according to Caroline Gaetano, president of Tails of Joy. She described the R.E.A.D. program, in which students read to dogs in schools or libraries. It helps children practice reading, especially those who may have learning disabilities or be too shy to read around adults.

Gaetano said the evidence is only anecdotal, but she's seen leaps in confidence and skill for students reading with the dogs. A graduate student is working on a study to measure the results.

Dogs also visit schools that have experienced crises. Gizmo and Adams are members of K9 First Responders, an organization based in Milford that sends teams to locations that experience a crisis.

Started as a reaction to shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown in 2012, K9 First Responders tries to limit psychological harm to those directly affected. Executive Director Brad Cole said the group sent teams to Manchester High in November, after the loss of a student, and to RHAM High and Middle schools in 2013 and 2014 after the traffic-related deaths of several students and a teacher.

The dogs go out in the first 72 hours after a crisis, Cole said, hoping to reach participants in "the golden hour" where the dogs and their handlers can be "a roadblock to PTSD."

"We try to be a speed bump preventing extensive damage," Cole said.

The handlers are as hands-off as possible to provide a more natural healing process. Handlers are also trained to help others gain access to mental health resources.

When K9 First Responders came to Manchester High, Principal Jill Krieger said, more than 60 students sought out the three handler-dog teams, and they made a difference.

"Although we may never know the true impact that these dogs had on our students, it allowed them time to decompress and hopefully work through the different emotions they may have been feeling," Krieger wrote to Cole after the dogs completed their visit.

Gaetano said the dogs' role is to provide comfort.

"We can't fix the situation or know how students feel. Sometimes kids are stoic, but petting, hugging a dog, they share," she said. It's very powerful, but strictly to provide comfort."

The owner-dog teams undergo extensive and ongoing training. "Unless you're trained, you can do more damage than good," Cole said.

While the work can be emotional and challenging, Rabschutz said it's worth it. "It's a great activity for handlers and dogs, very rewarding," she said.

And, while they can't exactly speak for themselves, the dogs apparently enjoy it too.


Information from: Journal Inquirer,

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