School Therapy Dogs
Once you have the support of your administration, the next step is to conduct a through site evaluation. This step will help outline what aspects of your school need to be changed prior to bringing a dog onsite. The best tool by far to accomplish this is the Standards of Practice for Animal-Assisted-Activites and Animal-Assted-Therapy that was published by Delta Society Delta Society is now named Pet Partners. My copy of this publication is worn from the multiple times I've referred to it for step by step walk checklist to develop standards for my school.
There are 3 primary areas that I focused on in a site evaluation.
School Layout and Typical Activities - I needed to consider and plan movement through hallways full of students, bell schedules, classrooms, outside access for bathroom breaks, playground equipment and intervention room set-up. Copper and I work primarily out of the counseling room. I'm very fortunate to have a room where I can keep a kennel next to my desk. It's the dog-only zone. This is where Copper goes when he needs a break from the session or activity. I also needed to consider what would happen during a fire alarm or lock-down. In our school, classes have large buckets where students place their home lunches. These are lined up outside our gym/cafeteria before lunch.
Copper has experienced a small handful of fire alarms and drills. Our protocols includes notification in advance of a drill. Since we have proven our protocols for drills work, we do not subject him to further drills. I will walk him outside prior to the start of the drill and we will follow students to our meeting location as they exit the building. When we practiced our first drill, I ensured we were close to an exit and that I didn't have a student with him. I was not sure how Copper would react. I also had a pocket of high-value treats. When the alarm went off, I started giving Copper his high value treats as we exited the building. He did beautifully. We have had alarm occur when we are working with a student and Copper remains calm and looks to me for direction.
Copper has participated in several lock down drills. He actually enjoys lock downs because they are typically full of belly rubs from students. Copper's calm demeanor has helped when students become anxious about the situation. He provides an excellent, very quiet distraction.
Student Assessment - I have discovered that more students respond positively to Copper than any other reward system I've ever tried. However, there are students who have aversions to dogs. I am aware of a student who was attacked by a dog when she was young. This is vital knowledge to having a dog working in a school. I obtain this type of information in several different ways. One way is to advertise at the beginning of the school year about having a dog in school. I include my email and phone number and request that families contact me with any concerns. I also include a statement in my first guidance lesson of the year. I have students drop a message in my locked "mailbox" if they have concerns. I also stress that it's OK if they don't like dogs. They are very important to me and their feelings of safety at school are my highest priority. I do have certain classrooms that Copper is not allowed to enter. If we are working with a student from that class, we wait at the door and have someone else get their attention.
It is also important to consider negative physical behaviors or past abuse of animals. There have been a small handful of students that do not meet the protocols for working with Copper. They have a history of hitting, kicking, biting and/or throwing items at peers and staff. I do not consider having these students work with Copper until we have addressed the physical behaviors and they have proven they can use a safe replacement behavior when feeling overwhelmed or angry. I will practice interactions with a dog puppet for these students to ensure they can demonstrate safe ways to pet and communicate with Copper.
Allergies often become a barrier to working with a therapy dog. However, do not rule these students out entirely. A couple years ago, we had a student who had a pet allergy. He was struggling with reading and had not responded to other interventions. By working with the family and increasing Copper's allergy protocols, we were able to demonstrate a positive response to the reading intervention. The student did not touch Copper, washed hands before and after the intervention and we worked in a different location. Copper's room is kept very clean but by moving the location of the intervention we minimized risk of increased dander. The parents were happy, but more importantly, the student was thrilled to be able to work with Copper and meet his goals.
Copper doesn't work every day of the week. My schedule allows me to provide services to students who may not be good candidates to work with a therapy dog.
Staff Assessment - There is a staff member at my school who has an aversion to dogs. She and I were able to work together to established a set of expectations so that she felt comfortable. Copper is not allowed in her classroom and is always on a leash inside and outside the building. The only exception is when he is working in the counseling room and the door is closed. I am very grateful for her willingness to work with me. She has referred several of her students to work with Copper and has seen the success of the program.