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Published on April 10, 2017

A furry staff member who listens without judgmentA furry staff member who listens without judgment

therapy dog

Cam Smith (student) with Sean Withington, school adjustment counselor at the Quashnet Elementary School and Kieki.

Walk through the door at the Kenneth C. Coombs School nurse’s office in Mashpee and you will be greeted by a four-legged assistant with a wagging tail. Cassie is a 4-year-old golden retriever who shares her “office” with school nurse Stacey Schakel, MSN, RN, CAGS, NCSN.

Next door, at the Quashnet Elementary School, Keiki, a 9-year-old golden retriever greets students at the front door in the morning and visits classrooms with school adjustment counselor Sean Withington, MSW, LICSW, LADC1.

Other than their breed, the two dogs have something else in common. They are therapy/comfort dogs who not only bring a calming presence to the schools but also play an important role in education.

“Cassie has been an awesome asset, we didn’t have any ongoing issues with children not wanting to come to school this year,” said Schakel. “Students who had issues with coming to school last year have transitioned quicker this year because they knew Cassie is an option to help them.”

This is the therapy dog’s second year at the pre-kindergarten through second grade elementary school.

Keiki has been at the third through sixth grade Quashnet elementary school for five years.

“She is good at grounding situations and bringing down the emotional temperature,” said Withington.

Research has shown that the human-animal bond lowers blood pressure, reduces anxiety and enhances feelings of well-being according to the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative Foundation (HABRI).

While their roles are alike in many ways, their locations and uses are different.

Cassie essentially remains in the nurse’s office throughout the day and the students come to her. Keiki is out and about more with Withington during the school day.

The Dogs’ Roles

“Children to a greater degree will express their scale of emotions through physical symptoms,” said Withington. “Nurses get many more kids coming into their office who suffer anxiety or stress responses. Adults can verbalize their emotions whereas most children cannot.”

When the students talk with Cassie, they learn to verbalize without having to speak directly to the nurse, according to Schakel.

Cassie is available for whatever the students’ needs are.

“The children come into my office with a pass from their teacher so I know why they are coming,” she said. “Cassie has her bed under my desk and will pick up on the demeanor of the child. Her default position is to roll over for a belly rub.”

A lot of times, the students will come in and say they need to talk with Cassie or brush her. Sometimes, that is all they need and then leave.

“When the students are sick or injured, they don’t have heightened anxiety anymore. She has brought a calmness to the office that I did not have 17 years prior to last year. My vision and hearing screenings go faster with her in the room,” said Schakel.

At the Quashnet School, there is a door between Withington’s office and the nurse’s office and Keiki is available to the nurse when needed.

“In the guidance office, we have therapeutic tools, including Keiki. It boils down to basic needs for the child, it goes much better when a child comes in and begins to play out what is going on at home or the stress in the school culture,” said Withington.

Keiki also walks the halls with Withington and is among the students most of the school day. She helps out in various situations, the kids all know her and are always respectful towards her.

Withington gives the example of a situation where Keiki helped a mother and her child.

The child was new to the school and was having a difficult time letting her mother leave. With Keiki’s companionship, the student was able to go into the classroom and the mother managed to say goodbye.

The Educational Piece

The Mashpee school system’s educational model and district goal this year is supporting children’s emotional wellbeing, and the therapy dogs play a huge role in that, said Schakel.

“I try to incorporate her into the curriculum. When a student is doing something with her, they are learning a new skill such as brushing is self-care.

“She is a good listener when a student reads to her, she is non-judgmental if a student makes a mistake or stutters.

This year there are two students who are having difficulties learning sight words. They come in to see Cassie with the premise they are teaching Cassie how to read the words. The students’ flashcards match Cassie’s so they can teach her how to “read” while in reality, they are learning how to read.

Education also involves teaching the students about safety with the dogs and to remember to treat them gently even when the students are upset or angry.

“Praise and positive interventions teach the students a lot of social skills,” said Withington. “You never ask a dog to come to you so that you may scold her.”

Schakel and Withington have had the support of the schools’ Superintendent Patricia DeBoer and the Mashpee School Committee. They stress the importance of the support and process for credentialing that is necessary to the success of the program.