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Therapy Dog Programs: Improving Student and Staff Well-Being

Written by April Harris

If you’ve ever owned a dog, then you will understand the meaning of “man’s best friend.” Their soothing, fun-loving, and charismatic nature naturally affects the mood of the environment. With just under a year of implementation, our therapy dog program has already made a huge impact on our staff and students’ morale and mental well-being.

Our staff and students are faced with many daily challenges imposed by a global pandemic, government turmoil, and controversial issues involving diversity. Studies have shown the negative impact that our current realities are having on the mental health and well-being of those in the educational system—teachers and students.

Teachers are an essential component to the campus culture and climate. They are the most influential factor of student success and well-being, and it is imperative that teacher health and well-being are our No. 1 priority. Unfortunately, teacher stress and anxiety are at an all-time high. Contributors to teacher stress and burnout are increased workload, juggling remote and in-person teaching expectations, maintaining student well-being, and balancing work and home life. At the end of November, about 48 percent of all women and 37 percent of all men exhibited symptoms of anxiety and depression. Last August, the National Education Association found that 28 percent of educators said that the pandemic made them more likely to leave teaching. Teachers, like students, need a support system to help reduce stress and anxiety.

Schools also have seen a rise in mental health concerns for today’s youth. Students enter our buildings with the weight of the world on their shoulders. With exposure to social media, cyberbullying, digital media, violence, and much more, our students experience overwhelming feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. With 1 in 6 U.S. youth aged 6–17 experiencing a mental health disorder each year and suicide as the second leading cause of death among people aged 10–34, implementing a program to improve the mental well-being of our children is critical and necessary.

Meet Maslow and his owner/trainer, Michaela McCord. Michaela is a counselor intern at Midway Middle School. When she first began at our campus, we had no idea the lasting impact she would make with our staff and students.

I had researched and promoted the implementation of a therapy dog program a year and a half prior to Michaela coming to us. I found several studies showing the positive effects that therapy dogs were having on student academic and social growth. A 2019 study published by the National Institute of Health found that a dog present in the classroom promotes positive mood and provides significant anti-stress effects on the body. An additional study conducted by the University of California on canine reading programs found that students who participated in one program increased their reading fluency by between 12 percent and 30 percent. So, when Michaela told me she had a therapy dog, I knew this was our opportunity to implement a program.

How is it going? Maslow and Michaela have greatly impacted our staff and students. One student was asked how Maslow has helped her and she replied, “He has helped me a lot! I feel more confident, and he has reduced my anxiety. His smile and the look in his eyes make you feel like you can do anything.” This student also said, “Maslow creates a way for students who are shy to break out of their shell. I know I can be myself around him because he doesn’t judge me or tell me I’ve done something wrong. He makes all of us happier and something to look forward to when we come to school.”

Maslow has also made an impact on our intensive behavior students. With the use of scheduled Maslow time and incentive rewards to see Maslow, we have seen a reduction in these students’ severe behaviors. Maslow has provided an avenue to relieve stress and anxiety in our teachers. This year has created many hardships for our staff members, and the soothing love of our furry friend has boosted their overall morale. Furthermore, since our program has been extremely successful, our district is looking at the possibility of making Michaela and Maslow full time.

If you have not thought about a therapy dog program, I urge you to find a way to get a furry friend onto your campus. Your staff and students can and will benefit from it. Below are resources and research that I used to start our program and hope that you find them useful.


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