In Uhrichsville, Ohio, a school district is turning to a facility dog to help reduce students’ stress about school, manage or respond to anxieties and to improve the overall school climate.
Heather Dotts, an ELA teacher at Claymont High School for more than 20 years, will be the handler/caretaker of the new dog, Mustang. She explained the decision came to pursue a district facility dog following changes to Ohio’s standardized tests in 2015. “The increased the rigor and also transitioned from pencil/paper tests to online testing,” said Dotts. “Many students and teachers experienced anxiety and worry. There was a noticeable increase in school stress.”
As part of her 2015 Communications students’ project, they were to design a proposal and solicit sponsors to pursue a facility dog. Five organizations and individuals believed their idea and pledged the $3,000 needed to purchase and train a dog. Dotts noted a key sponsor in, Trinity Hosptial Twin City through the help of Mrs. Tiffany Poland, Director of Marketing, Outreach, and Recruitment, along with Mr. Kevin Johns from Material Handling Specialists LLC, Mr. Mark Natoli and his family, Mrs. Debra Gardner from the Ten Lakes Center, and Dr. Andrea and Mr. Paul Fanti. Also, Dr. Nat Fisher from Twin City Veterinary Outpatient Clinic donated her time and services to ensure the dog is healthy.
This all lead them to Mustang, whose name was chosen by Claymont students. He is a 1 ½-year-old Labrador Retriever that spent 18 months training with Quad Cities Canine Assistance Network (QC CAN), an organization in Rock Island, Illinois that trains service and facility dogs with the help of a college service group called the Viking Pups. The dogs entered into the program are fostered, socialized, and trained on the Augustana College Campus by students who serve as assistant trainers. “We were attracted to this organization because of the exposure and socialization that the dogs receive in a school setting,” added Dotts.
Dotts traveled to Iowa over spring break where she received 30 hours of placement training and worked with his handlers to learn how to ask him to correctly perform each of the 30 commands he knows. She will continue to receive additional assistance and training throughout his working life to maintain the level and success of his current skills as well as to develop new ones.
In addition to basic obedience, he has been trained to perform specific animal-assisted activities that the district believes will bring smiles and ease stress. “He can be instructed to put his head [on] a person’s lap and keep it there for a student to pet while managing anxieties,” noted Dotts. “Another specialized animal-assisted activity he can perform is called ‘pressure.’ This command can be used to help interested students who may be dealing with sensory issues.”
Dotts cited past and ongoing research that reportedly shows the presence of a facility dog has many benefits. “It has been shown that the simple act of petting a dog can decrease blood pressure, reduce stress, and lower cholesterol,” she said. “Beyond that, a school facility dog can improve classroom performance by acting as a motivator and serving as another tool to care for the social and emotional well-being of our students and staff.”
She noted an example in which Mustang can help a student struggling to read by allowing the student to read to him first. “That student can gain confidence that will allow him/her to transition into reading to larger groups.” Attendance issues may also be addressed through the use of Mustang. “Mustang can support our district’s PBIS efforts with some of these students by providing them the extra ‘boost’ needed to get them here more regularly,” Dotts explained. “These may seem like small acts, but it is the small acts that make a big difference in the lives of our students.”
Additionally, students will also be given an opportunity to act as ‘student handlers,’ allowing them to experience a learning opportunity for those interested in an animal science, education or another career path.
“So, he is here to serve many needs: to relieve test anxiety, act as liaison in peer tutoring situations, to act as PBIS support (as a positive reward or incentive to reinforce desired behavior), to bring out leadership qualities in students who serve as student “handlers”, to promote and aid in communication with students with disabilities; and to act as a reading “retriever” to promote reading skills,” added Dotts.
All students will have opportunities to greet him during arrival and dismissal and the district will work with the guidance and office staff to ensure he is available whenever he’s needed. Officials note, he will never roam the building freely and will always be leashed and under direct supervision, but students are always welcome to arrange to see him.
At this time, Mustang is assigned to the high school; however, officials indicated the possibility of working with other buildings to allow him to serve all students.
Dotts is also maintaining a blog to keep the community up-to-date with the latest Mustang news.
Michaela Madison Reporting