NAMPA — Students at Franklin D. Roosevelt Elementary recently got acquainted with Mila, a Chesapeake Bay retriever, and the special power only a dog can provide to help soothe students.
Next school year, two of Mila’s six puppies, Chesapeake-poodle mixes, plan to take on the role of therapy dogs at the Nampa school.
Shawn Tegethoff, Roosevelt’s principal, said she always wanted therapy dogs for students. The idea has been 23 years in the making, when she first encountered a school dog while student-teaching.
The dog, however, was not just meant for soothing students — it acted as a mascot and guard for the school at the time when there were no alarms, she said.
The two puppies who will join Roosevelt, now just over a month old, will mainly focus on being therapy dogs for students. The puppies are hypoallergenic and known to be a calm breed. They’re already becoming familiar with the school grounds and students before beginning their training this summer. Two from the litter will be chosen as therapy dogs for the school.
“In the fall they will meet their pack (students),” Tegethoff said. “We want the dogs to know that they belong with the children.”
The idea of having therapy dogs in a classroom is not a new idea, but it’s been gaining traction nationwide.
Schools in Montana have taken to using therapy dogs to help students, according to an Associated Press report. And therapy dogs helped grieving students return to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida following the February shooting, the New York Post reported.
The reasons for having therapy dogs in a school vary from increasing literacy, creating a better climate in the school or providing emotional support for students. At the Nampa elementary, the dogs will be available for children struggling with attendance and unexpected behaviors. Children will also be rewarded for good behavior by earning a visit with the dogs.
Tegethoff said there have been some recent hardships in the school, including a suicide in the school district earlier this year. Tegethoff said she knew getting therapy dogs was something that couldn’t wait any longer.
“It’s not OK for kids to not feel safe,” she said.
There are 445 students in kindergarten through fifth grade at Roosevelt. Of those, 175 students this school year have visited a counselor for support dealing with their parents’ divorce, according to a report. Thirteen children live in the foster care system. Some students reportedly struggle with eating disorders, anxiety or suicidal thoughts. Some students worry about their families being deported.
These thoughts and worries are not meant to plague the minds of young children, Tegethoff said. Bringing therapy dogs into the school is meant to comfort the students and help them feel safe.
Tegethoff said she has already seen the difference a therapy dog can make by the puppies’ mother, Mila, who spent this school year with the students. Because she has done so well with students, she gets to wander freely around the school — except, of course, the cafeteria.
Ben Riley, a fifth-grade student, has found Mila to be beneficial.
“She’s just calming. She’s really nice. She’s adorable,” Riley said.
Riley, who for a period of time was struggling to go to school, said Mila made coming to school easier. He is excited for two full-time therapy dogs to arrive next year.
The puppies will gain their American Kennel Club therapy certification. During the summer, the two puppies will be taken into different areas to get familiar with older children and the school campus.
By the end of the next school year, the pair will be AKC Therapy Dog certified, which is Mila’s status. This certification requires 50 visits.
Currently a small group of students with varying issues meets each morning with teachers, Tegethoff said. The plan is to give time to those children with the puppies first.
The dogs will have set schedules, just like students do. For example, the dogs might start their day helping greet students at the bus, meet with students who won golden tickets to visit the dogs, walk the school with the principal and then attend a counseling session.
For extreme situations at the school, the dogs will also be trained on how to protect and keep people in place without injuring the person. This would only happen if staff felt threatened or put the school on lockdown. If there is another crisis at a school in the district, one or both of the dogs would be sent there for extra support.
Roosevelt Elementary has set up a GoFundMe account to raise funds to purchase the puppies.
As another fundraiser, the students get to be involved in the process of naming the two. Students submit their ideas for names, and the staff will choose five. Students put money into a jar of the name they want the dogs to have. The two names with the most money at the end of the fundraiser win. If there is extra money, it will go to the counseling department to help with student needs.
Tegethoff knows there are a lot of people who believe in this cause and the benefits dogs can provide students.
“Kids and puppies go together,” she said.
Riley nodded his head in agreement as he held one of the tiny potential therapy dogs in his arms.