Adding a dog into an already chaotic and busy classroom may seem overwhelming. I can barely find time to let myself go to the bathroom, let alone time to take my dog, Ollie, out during the school day. Do all my students feel comfortable with this 65 pound fluff-ball around? Does Ollie feel stressed? Did my student just stick his finger into Ollie’s ear? As teachers we have enough on our minds, but I am here to tell you that having a therapy dog within my classroom, heck my entire elementary school, has been an absolute game changer. Everyone, meet Ollie!
When I decided to add a puppy to my family, I knew that I wanted to pursue the therapy dog process. I began training day one, from Youtube videos all the way to a two-week board and train. After lots of practice and training, I found a local organization that would allow Ollie and I to join their volunteer team. Within this organization, Ollie and I had to pass a pre-test, test and an observation within the school setting. Being a part of this organization means that Ollie and I can participate in different volunteer opportunities outside of school, and we are insured in case anything were to happen while volunteering.
Working with students on the Autism Spectrum, we all know that communication is a skill that is being worked on every minute of the school day. Each of my students communicate in a variety of ways; verbally, with AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) devices, and through PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System). Ollie’s presence has spurred spontaneous communication from all of my students. Some students initiate greetings, some travel with their PECS communication strip to request time with Ollie, and others simply tell him to “lay down” while they are eating their snack, as they refuse to be bothered by his silent begging (very valid). All of the communication that has been sparked from Ollie being in the classroom has been independent, appropriate, and beautiful!
Not to sound too weird or like a hippy *insert peace sign*, but dogs just get it. Ollie is still a puppy and has his rambunctious moments, but the moment those students walk into the door, Ollie knows it’s time to work. If I have a student who is having a hard time, Ollie tends to inch closer, just to be near the kiddo. He remains calm and waits for his cue to come offer a lick or for them to give him a pet (so selfless, I know). If I have students taking a break on a bean bag, Ollie gets right in there and finds a way to be the little spoon. His calm demeanor does something for my students, and I truly hope you all can experience this within your own space, if ever presented the opportunity.
Positive Reinforcement & Experiences
As special educators, we are all familiar with the importance of PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports). I am fortunate enough to work in an elementary school that has implemented a school wide Tier 1 PBIS reward system. Every student within our building can receive “tickets” for demonstrating positive and kind behaviors, which they can save up and later cash in to receive the reward or experience of their choosing. As many of you may have guessed, Ollie is a hot commodity when it comes to these tickets! Seeing how many students eagerly save up their tickets just so that they can pick out his bandana for the day or take him on a walk around the school is heartwarming. Ollie truly motivates students to exceed and be their best selves, if only he realized the impact that he makes daily.
So to anyone who is considering adding a therapy dog into their classroom, I am here to be your cheerleader. Ollie adds love, light and comedic relief into the day, for both students and staff. He encourages social interactions, opportunities for movement, and reminds us all to take a deep breath. Not to mention, I finally have someone in my household who understands why I fall asleep on the couch at 8:00 PM every evening. Here’s to you, Ollie!