GREENSBURG – A black labradoodle named Stella has moved into the hearts of some very lucky North Decatur Elementary students.
Stella spends her weekdays with the kids at North Decatur and then goes home with Assistant Principal Jeremy Sherman nights and weekends.
“She’s doing great!” Sherman said. “She’ll go through about four months of obedience training. As she gets closer to a year old, there are several programs we can enroll her in, and when she’s all done she’ll be a certified therapy dog.”
A therapy dog is a dog trained to provide affection, comfort and love to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, and schools — even for people with anxiety disorders or autism.
Even though they are not widely considered actual service dogs and therefore given access to many facilities, therapy dogs are usually trained and certified to one particular facility or situation.
According to the American Kennel Club, therapy dogs earn the AKC “Therapy Dog” title.
In order for a dog to be a good candidate to become a therapy dog, they should be calm and social with strangers and should adjust easily to loud noises and fast movements.
There are certain training steps that are needed for a dog to become AKC certified. The first step is to socialize the dog, get them used to being around people and other animals. Then they go through a test to become AKC or Pet Partner certified. They are tested on behaviors such as no jumping and being able to walk on a loose leash.
Once the dog is a year old and trained in general obedience, it can become AKC certified and signed up for therapy training classes.
The first class is called “distractionproofing,” which helps the dog become more focused. The last class is the therapy training class itself, where dogs and their owners are trained in actual therapeutic situation.
Although therapy dogs are not limited to a certain size or breed, common breeds used in therapy dog application and research includes Golden Retrievers, Labradors, and the very popular labradoodle.
Modern educators have long touted the advantages of using therapy dogs in counseling situations, but second grade NDES teacher Linda Smith cannot recommend a therapy dog enough — as a pet, as a therapy dog, or even as a teaching tool.
“There are so many ways having a dog in class helps,” she said. “And it’s not just because having her in class provides us with some calm and quiet, she is in so many ways and fabulous teaching tool.”
Graphing Stella’s weight as she grows provides learning minds with weight data and the opportunity to learn about statistical principles like range, median, mean and mode of her weekly weight gain.
She helps teach the children to count money as they compute how much it takes to buy her treats.
Her pen space (the area in which she’s kept during the day) helps them learn about area and perimeter and allows the students the opportunity of redesigning her living area.
Students are allowed opportunities to win time with her, reading (which helps reluctant oral readers gain confidence) and just hanging out, which teaches them behavior and maturity.
“She doesn’t care if you don’t read well, she loves you anyway, so it gives kids the opportunity to practice their reading skills in a non-judgmental environment,” Smith said.
“We can work on our S.T.E.M. with her as well,” Smith continued. “Students can design mazes for her, and they can learn about what safe puppy toys are made of, not to mention how taking care of a dog inspires the next generation of veterinarians, pet groomers, animal science majors, kennel technicians, and just good pet owners. Plus, the most obvious advantage of having a dog in class is that sometimes, the best, least judgmental and most loving therapists in the world come with fur, four paws and a wet nose!”