Therapy animals are a treat for students and staff at Northwest Arkansas schools

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BENTONVILLE – Murphy the Labradoodle has become a familiar sight at Washington Junior High School in Bentonville, and for at least some students, his presence has a calming effect.

“I’ll see him in the halls and stuff, and he’s always wagging his tail, and he’s super happy,” said Cali McLaughlin, 12, of Bella Vista, a seventh grade student at the school.

Cali said she often finds peace by stroking Murphy when she is having a bad day.

“It’s just heartwarming and it comforts me a lot,” she said. “When I leave I’ll keep thinking about him and how super sweet he was.”

Murphy is a certified therapy dog, one of four therapy dogs owned by staff members working on campuses in the Bentonville School District, said Don Hoover, executive director of student services.

Although there are no official therapy animal programs in the larger school districts in Northwest Arkansas, the introduction of therapy animals into schools is a growing trend in the districts. of Bentonville and Springdale, the directors said. It’s one way they hope to improve the well-being of staff and students.

Administrators in Fayetteville, Fort Smith and Rogers said their schools receive occasional visits from therapy animals that may not be specifically placed on district campuses.

“Having an animal in our office or at school is just one more way for a child to form a meaningful bond,” said Katie Jenkins, school counselor at Shaw Elementary School in Springdale. “Maybe they’re more comfortable with an animal than a teacher or a counselor.”

Jenkins serves students and staff at Shaw with the help of Kashi, a 5-year-old mixed-breed therapy dog.

Springdale has six therapy dogs and a therapy rabbit – named Bugz Aldren – who serve in schools, with staff from Tyson School of Innovation and Kelly Middle School working to get their therapy dogs certified. staff to work in their schools as well, Jenkins said. .

“It’s sort of active growth,” she said, noting that therapy animals serve students at all levels. “The district has requested that we only have one per school.”

Staff members work independently to get their personal therapy animals certified, said Marla York, a school counselor at Washington Junior High School in Bentonville.

York introduced Murphy, a less than one year old Labradoodle, to school in November, she said. Murphy’s training and certification cost around $ 2,800 and was paid for through the school’s Parents’ Organization and Unleashed, a Bentonville-based nonprofit group that helps place therapy dogs in schools in Northwest Arkansas.

Many staff choose to introduce therapy animals because they see the benefit for the schools they work in, and they often pay for therapy animal training and certifications themselves, Jenkins said.

Jenkins said she was also an adoptive mother and paid for Kashi’s training and certification independently.

“I wanted to take that at home as well, which was part of the reason I was willing to make a financial commitment and a time commitment,” she said.

Liability insurance is in place for the animals, Jenkins said, noting that each should have a single qualified handler who manages the animal at the school.

It’s a big commitment worth making, she said.

“You can’t just add a therapy dog ​​to a school and then pick someone to take care of it,” she said. “The dog cannot move around the school between different people.”

CALM PRESENCE

Not all dogs have what it takes to be a therapy animal, York said.

“They have to be able to be everyone’s dog,” she said, noting that Murphy had to remain calm around strangers and large groups of people who might want to pet him.

Murphy greets the students as they arrive at school, serves the students for consultation, sits with the students for lunch, and regularly walks the halls with York to comfort staff and students throughout the day, York said.

Morgan Hritz, a special education teacher at Hellstern Middle School, said she had seen increased student anxiety during the covid-19 pandemic. Hritz serves the school with Nala, a 4-year-old Siberian husky who has been diagnosed with anxiety.

Nala’s anxiety was initially ignored, Hritz said. Once Nala was diagnosed, Hritz realized that the dog could still serve effectively with the disease and could serve as an example for students to meet the challenge.

Hritz wrote a children’s book called “Nala the Hero Husky”, which was published in September, for use in the classroom to share Nala’s story, how she copes with anxiety, and how students can do the same. , she said.

Therapy dogs are also a source of relief for staff members, said Debbie Casto, Washington High School physical education teacher and women’s basketball coach. Casto accompanies Murphy at the end of most days of work.

“It makes me forget everything,” she said. “I wish every school could get one, and I wish we had it even sooner.”

LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES

Therapy dogs aren’t just a comforting presence; they can often help educate students, Jenkins said. Some students who do not want to read aloud to adults or their classes will read to Kashi.

“I even have students with selective mutism or other disabilities that involve their language communication. They are more comfortable talking to him,” Jenkins said.

Nala helps students understand communication lessons, Hritz said.

“We’re looking for a creative way to connect with kids, build those relationships, and empower them to express themselves,” Jenkins said. “We recognize that it’s not always people or adults like us who children connect with first.”

Some of Hritz’s students with severe speech or language problems use devices to communicate, a skill that Nala has helped strengthen, according to Hritz.

Nala has buttons she presses to communicate needs like going to the bathroom or eating, Hritz said.

“I don’t give her any commands to press her buttons. She’s communicating on her own,” she said. “If I don’t listen to her, she will slide the buttons.”

Students see Nala’s needs met, which leads them to use their personal devices to communicate their needs to others, she said.

“They would see Nala ‘talking’ and get the things she wanted,” Hritz said.

Kashi helps students learn self-control lessons, Jenkins said, noting that she will take the dog to classrooms to demonstrate positive behaviors.

“She will show them how she can wait for long periods of time without being impulsive and without getting up,” she said.

Kashi will also demonstrate building healthy relationships with students while she spends time with them, letting them interact with her as an act of trust, Jenkins said.

“We talk about how we do it with people we trust too,” she said. “We’re not just running around and hugging someone we don’t know very well. We’re waiting to build a relationship with someone.”

York said all schools may find it helpful to add a therapy animal to their staff.

“It brings joy, acceptance and love,” she said of Murphy. “It’s his job.”

Counselor Marla York lets students play with Murphy on Tuesday, December 7, 2021 at Washington Junior High School in Bentonville. (NWA Democrat-Gazette / Flip Putthoff)
Photo Counselor Marla York lets students play with Murphy on Tuesday, December 7, 2021 at Washington Junior High School in Bentonville. (NWA Democrat-Gazette / Flip Putthoff)
Photo Therapy dog ​​Murphy and counselor Marla York visit the students over lunch on December 7, 2021 at the Washington Junior High School cafeteria in Bentonville. (NWA Democrat-Gazette / Flip Putthoff)
Photo Murphy counselor and therapy dog ​​Marla York visit Tuesday, December 7, 2021 with students over lunch at Washington Junior High School in Bentonville. (NWA Democrat-Gazette / Flip Putthoff)
Photo Shaylynn Abernathy, an eighth-grade student at Washington Junior High School in Bentonville, underwent pet therapy with Murphy on December 7, 2021 in Councilor Marla York’s office. (NWA Democrat-Gazette / Flip Putthoff)
Photo Murphy has his own special place in the corner of Councilor Marla York’s office on December 7, 2021 at Washington Junior High School in Bentonville. (NWA Democrat-Gazette / Flip Putthoff)
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