Working like a dog: The benefits of therapy dogs in schools

Sarah Rice, Reporter

In the crowded halls of MASH, amid the sounds of shouting voices, rustling papers, opening doors, and shuffling feet, emerges the delicate pitter-patter of four tiny paws against the tiled floor. Groups of students part like the Red Sea, making way for Ms. Heistand and her furry companion, Bailey, as they both have a celebrity status throughout the school. While Ms. Heistand and Bailey have provided students with mental and emotional support for the past two years now, their work remains relevant- especially in today’s stressful environment.

Therapy dogs like Bailey work in all settings, from group homes to rehabilitation centers to nursing homes, however it is becoming more and more common to see a therapy dog in an educational setting. The benefits of therapy dogs at schools, be it an elementary school or a big university, involve not just the emotional, but also the mental, social, and physical wellbeing of students. Various studies favor therapy dogs in educational settings, such as the case study “Who Let the Dog In? How to Incorporate a Dog into a Self-Contained Classroom”, completed by Katherine L. Anderson. Anderson shows that, when utilized correctly, therapy dogs can increase students’ “sense of self and… understanding of their emotional triggers and ways in which to solve their emotional difficulties” by developing companionship and a stable environment for those struggling. Of course, every situation is different, so each unique student, dog, and situation cultivates unique benefits for those involved.

Even though many schools and counselors fail to utilize the relatively modern concept of therapy animals in educational settings, Ms. Heistand- and all of the other members of the MASH guidance department, embraced Bailey with open arms. Ms. Heistand, with twenty-four years of school counseling under her belt, knows exactly what her students need to succeed both in and out of the classroom. So she knows that sometimes, unconventional methods- such as owning a therapy dog-  initiate the best results.

As a therapy dog, Bailey’s main job is to provide support, comfort, and affection to those who need it. She, like other therapy animals, works with her owner to assist in psychological or physiological therapy. While Bailey did participate in a series of training courses to become a certified therapy dog, her status is different than that of a service dog. Unlike a service dog, therapy dogs cannot perform specific tasks to help people with disabilities. Instead, therapy animals focus on maintaining stable temperaments and friendly personas that ultimately help provide emotional support to those who need it. Depending on the people and environment of each unique situation, therapy dogs and their owners know how to react in ways that promote healthy mental and emotional responses.

Between their six legs, four eyes, and two huge hearts, Bailey and Ms. Heistand play integral roles in making Mechanicsburg High School the compassionate, supportive place it is. The two of them form a team, one with a single goal in mind- helping MASH students become the best version of themselves possible.