Therapy dogs could help students with ruff days


Murphy (first) and Stuie (second) the two service dogs in the East Pennsboro school district.

Faith Swarner, Reporter

Murphy (first) and Stuie (second) the two service dogs in the East Pennsboro school district.

East Pennsboro School District has a new employee that is different than all others they have had before, and his name is Murphy. Murphy is a therapy dog that is handled by Tracy Geist and Madison Mellor who take him to all the different schools throughout his typical workday. They get to see first hand the benefits of having a therapy dog in school, and how it has helped students.
The East Pennsboro School District considered therapy dogs for many reasons and weighed the pros and cons of adopting one into their school system. Geist said, “Based on school demographics and disabilities present in the school, we knew we could greatly benefit from a therapy dog. Concerns were personality traits of the dog, who would be handlers for the dog, life span and energy level. Our therapy dog is hypoallergenic so there are no allergy concerns and all students are able to interact with her.”

Many schools have been trying new things to benefit the mental and social health of the students that go there, and a therapy dog is considered to be a great option for some. When searching for a therapy dog to join their staff, the interested party had to have administration and school board approval before the search was started. Training therapy dogs take a lot of work on both the part of the dog and handler. In Murphy’s case he was trained for eight weeks since his start as a puppy. In four months she was a graduate of her training. Mellor said, “We put in 3, 8-hour days of training and continue with mini training sessions each morning to keep commands fresh in her mind.”

A typical day for Murphy starts at 7 when they arrive at school to eat breakfast and get ready before the kids arrive. From the arrival of kids and the start of their classes, Murphy will visit the special education classrooms with his handler and then greet regular education classrooms if they have extra time. At 12 they will eat lunch, use the restroom, and have time to rest. The rest of the day she spends her time in the guidance counselor’s office or special education classrooms meeting with students who need Murphy’s help.

There are students at Big Spring who receive special education or have mental health issues that could benefit from the addition of a therapy dog to the school system. According to the Center of Disease Control, dogs are considered to be mood boosters and help with anxiety, depression, and stress. Animals have the ability to read human emotions, and dogs are very in tune with human body language and can read your mood and emotional state even when they themselves cannot speak. Playing with a pet can increase serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain. These chemicals are responsible for helping our brains feel happy and reinforce motivations.

Geist said, “Our therapy dog helps students feel more at home and comfortable to help them open up about issues that they are struggling with. She is present in most special education classrooms during the day. At other times, our dog will go out to classrooms and visit the regular education population of students as a precautionary mental health technique to help in keeping a healthy peace of mind through the school building.” Since the addition of therapy dogs, Geist and Mellor have seen an improvement in students. They said, “I have seen students come in happier and more excited to start the day. The dog gives them something to look forward to and smile about almost as if she is a member of our school “family”. She is always there as a shoulder to cry on and someone to vent to if a student is upset and does not want to talk to an adult. Students love when she sits in therapy or counseling sessions because they make them feel more comfortable to open up so it’s not as much pressure sitting face to face with an adult.”

Therapy dogs could be a new and beneficial addition to the Big Springs schools, and other students have shared in this thought. Erinne Frampton said, “Yes, because a lot of students deal with mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, and a lot of that is caused by the pressures of school. Having a therapy dog could help relieve some of the anxious and depressed feelings while students are at school. Also some students would like help, but do not feel comfortable in the typical counseling office setting, so this way might help them.” Mellor and Geist agree with this sentiment and said, “Absolutely! It is so beneficial for the kids and adults too.” In the future therapy dogs might be a great alternative to typical school counseling and could make a great addition to the school district.