NAMPA — Four months into the job, two 7-month-old Chesapeake-poodle mixes have taken their role seriously in soothing the students at Franklin Roosevelt Elementary in Nampa.
In June, two from a litter of puppies were waiting to be selected and trained to become the school’s permanent therapy dogs. Though the dogs are still going through therapy dog training, now, four months into that role, Principal Shawn Tegethoff said it’s been amazing watching how Coco, Princess Leia and the students interact with one another.
“There is something magical about these dogs,” she said.
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 are available for children struggling with attendance and unexpected behaviors, like lashing out in anger.
Students are rewarded for good behavior by earning a visit with the dogs. Anyone can request a visit with the dogs, even staff.
“We can try repeatedly to start conversations, but it sometimes doesn’t go well. They (students) shut it down,” she said. “But with the dogs, they automatically are drawn to open up.”
Because it’s still early, the data Tegethoff would like to collect on how the dogs help the students is minimal. For now, about 20 students have worked through a sheet that shows zones of regulations, a curriculum that helps students gain understanding of their actions.
Using feelings marked by characters from the movie “Inside Out,” students are able to talk about how they are feeling before hanging out with the dogs. Typically they start out identifying with the character Anger, reporting feeling upset, aggressive or mean. Afterward, Tegethoff said, every student so far has reported a 100 percent improvement, relating better to the character Joy.
It’s an intervention she thinks opens channels for the other interventions, which involve staff and teachers, to work.
“It’s so much better for the dog to go and sit by them than it is for us to talk at that point,” she said. “Because they can’t process our words yet.”
One student in particular, Tegethoff described, started by visiting the dogs twice a day. Now, the student maybe visits the dogs twice a week.
Having the dogs also has helped staff identify children who have adverse childhood experiences, Tegethoff said. The more adverse experiences, known as ACEs, a student has, the more probable it is the child will carry unhealthy behaviors into adulthood.
Tegethoff first heard the term about two years ago and said she could “name off the top of my head how many kids I know about. How many kids I don’t know about was where I was worried.”
The students in kindergarten to fifth grade have sent nearly 200 letters to Coco and Leia, who respond to each letter.
The letters are profound and can sometimes be deeply personal, Tegethoff said. By reading letters and watching who comes forward and talks to the dogs, staff members are better able to identify hardships students are experiencing.
The school’s behavior team, with the help of Phyllis Vermilyea, Nampa School District’s Positive Behavior Interventions coordinator, has systems in place for students who are struggling in school. The behavior team figures out what the student needs in order to be successful. So far, two risk and threat assessments have been done for students, and those students are very involved with the dogs.
Tegethoff feels so warm and relieved having the dogs, she said.
“And so hopeful that kids that are truly going through something that they’re not sharing will have an outlet now,” she said. “The kids that are thinking of doing things that they shouldn’t (now) have somewhere to go. They have a bridge into the adults around them.”
But Coco and Princess Leia — named after their respective movies chosen by the students — are not only meant to make students’ and staff members’ days better — the dogs really love their job. Coco, who stays with Tegethoff and her family, nudges Tegethoff’s husband who usually puts her in the car. She impatiently waits to head to school. Thanksgiving break was rough for the dogs.
Currently, the dogs are going through training and are considered American Kennel Club Therapy Dogs, meaning they’ve had 50 visits. In about three years, Coco and Princess Leia will have 400 visits under their collars and be AKC Therapy Dog Distinguished.
When the dogs are in their role at school, they just know when someone needs to be comforted. Tegethoff said they get close, look the student in the eyes and lean into them, just waiting to be petted. It’s hard for students to resist.
“A dog comes in with that unconditional love, doesn’t know, doesn’t want you to explain, doesn’t expect anything from you and will just be right there by you,” she said.