A Kansas high school made national headlines after a 2022 school shooting shook the community. A place of positive experiences, such as football games, school plays and prom, turned into a crime scene.
Therapy dogs in schools were part of the response team. Friendly furry faces, supportive counselors, staff and parents all joined together to greet students and begin the healing process within the school community. Trained to use their therapeutic nature to deescalate emotions in a difficult situation, therapy dogs bring joy to students and staff.
Therapy dogs in schools to the rescue
Jennifer Cullen and Tisha Halfert, school counselors in the Kansas City school district, are part of a response team that assists when there is a loss or traumatic experience in one of the schools. Both staff members own Goldendoodles and work with them to bring a sense of calm to a situation with high emotions.
Shortly after the March 4, 2022 shooting, Tisha and Jennifer brought their Goldendoodles, Milo and Baxter, to middle schools where the students were reunited with their families.
“A girl came specifically looking for me and Baxter on the day it happened. The dogs provided a lifeline for them,” says Jennifer.
“A dog equals love in so many people’s lives,” says Angie Salava, director of mental health for Olathe Public Schools in Kansas, where the shooting occurred. “When your sense of safety is interrupted, therapy dogs can help re-establish that safety and healing can begin.”
Therapy dogs encourage students to return to school
School administrators brought in therapy dogs, counselors and extra police officers to calm nerves and bring comfort to students as they reentered the building. The dogs were overwhelmingly well received and reassured the students and staff.
“Many of our parents and students were hesitant to return to school; the dogs helped get them in the door,” says Tisha. “It helped bring down their anxiety.”
“When one of us goes into a building where we aren’t known, having the dogs there breaks the ice immediately,” says Jennifer. “Kids are more open to conversation at that time. With a person it takes much longer. Having the dogs present opens doors.”
An increase in school therapy dogs
Therapy dogs are also used for positive behavior incentive programs, to promote reading and to diffuse intense situations in district elementary schools.
In recent years, a growing number of professionals is certifying dogs to help out in offices and schools, says Scarlet Ross, who trains, tests and certifies therapy dogs locally for schools (and work) settings. Scarlet and Jennifer worked together to certify Baxter.
Therapy dogs, who provide emotional support, are different than service dogs, who are trained to help with a disability.
“It’s harder to trust people, but an animal automatically earns their trust, says Jeanette Clampitt, principal at neighboring district school Henry Leavenworth Elementary and dog parent to Teddy, a 4-year-old Bernedoodle. “They give unconditional love, which means that the child can be themselves. Dogs have that sense of calm that people tend to look for when they are sad.”
To learn about therapy dog certifications, visit Therapy Dogs International.