One State Spent Relief Funds On Therapy Dogs And Students Love It

By Erika Hanson | 3 months ago

therapy dog

Some say the best therapists have fur and four legs. And at least one state’s education sector believes that quote to be true. While states continue to implement new ways to administer federal COVID relief funds throughout schools, one state has adopted a peculiar way to spend those funds. Therapy dogs were sent to aid students that were grieving at Michigan’s Oxford School where earlier this year a student shot and killed four students. Seeing the effects that these furry friends have on students, more schools in the Great Lake State are hiring canines as a means to help students deal with stress.

Emotional and social stress has been an increasing issue among the youth, and the pandemic has only made things worse. Across the nation, students have experienced increased isolation, disruption, and uncertainty throughout the COVID pandemic. This added stress has led to an alarming rise in suicide rates. It even prompted the American Academy of Pediatrics to declare a national emergency of children’s mental health. In Michigan, schools are combating this growing problem with therapy dogs.

Across the country, schools have addressed the growing mental health crisis with varied response plans. Some schools have hired extra social workers, expanded on or created new social-emotional learning curriculums, and in the case around Michigan schools, the hiring of therapy dogs. The move might be bold, but Michigan sees the opportunity as a means to implement the relief funds in a way that won’t create further recurring costs other initiates see with plans for funding. “We wanted to ensure that we were using the funds in a way that was going to make a lasting impact,” said Bill Barnes, the assistant superintendent for Academic Services at Grand Ledge Public Schools. “We’ll have the dogs for their lifetimes.”

therapy dog

And to ease concerned parties’ minds over the price tag to implement therapy dogs in schools, Chalkbeat reports that the costs to implement this emotional support will amount to just a tiny portion of the whole COVID relief pot. Each therapy dog costs between $10 and $15 thousand. Districts in Michigan are planning on spending about $182 thousand of their funds to either purchase or rent the pooches. The rest of the state’s funds were set aside to be spent on ventilation improvements, hiring social workers and counselors, and expanding summer school programs. 

The research on therapy dogs is telling. Data suggests that the presence of trained therapy dogs lowers children’s stress levels, fosters a positive attitude towards learning, and helps to smooth interactions between students and other children. There have been potential downsides addressed with implementing the four-legged friends into schools. Sanitation, allergies, and general student fears have raised concerns. However, Superintendent Barnes says these issues are very manageable. 

At Grand Ledge, the newly trained therapy dogs are thoroughly qualified and hypoallergenic. Moreso, the dogs always remain with a handler that ensures no student is forced to interact with the dogs. The school has yet to receive any negative complaints. Staff members are also trained to handle the dogs, and the school says the trainers provide a home for the canines when school is out of session.

therapy dog

Nikki Brown, the executive director of Canines For Change, a nonprofit group that trains therapy dogs, says that the demand for trained dogs in schools has “exploded” since the onset of the pandemic. “The dogs are highly trained to be in a school environment. They are trained to work with kids with autism and kids with emotional issues. They sense stress. By the dogs’ behavior, they might alert a teacher or a counselor to a kid that is maybe struggling emotionally,” she said. 

Therapy dogs have long been used as a means to help people cope with stress. More than ever, there has been an outcry from parents and educators to address the growing social and emotional needs of students. A dog can help make a difference in that initiative, one paw at a time.