The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

We Need More Dogs in Schools

on May 11, 2020

Having almost nothing more to do today but eat, sleep, and watch television, I decided to look over some of my old writing that I had never published. I soon found one that looked like it would be good for supporting schools where kids feel lonely or unappreciated.  For that reason I decided to post it and hope it will please you as much as it did me. But if not, just through it away and forget  I suggested it.

Because the article was old, long, and included information no longer relevant, I did some cutting. But I think you will get the main message and find some good advice there. Here we go.

               Making Comfort Dogs an Everyday Part of School   

Cameron is no ordinary dog, not just because he was born on Valentine Day to Maggie, a first-grader at a country day school. That terrier with chestnut-brown eyes and  fluffy black hair is more like a friend than a dog. When Cameron is near her, Maggie feels happy and safe. She added “He will lay down and ask me to scratch his tummy,”

Cameron is one of a handful of dogs at a private day school.  He started showing up there when the head of the school brought his lab to the office. Jeff Sindler, the head of the school, adopted him and brought him to the campus where he became a school favorite. He said.“They don’t care if you’re good at basketball, a great reader, or popular, they just want to be loved.”  Cameron and the other dogs on campus go a long way toward improving students’ social and emotional well-being. They reduce tension, soothe anxiety, and elicit happy feelings from students.

Sindler also said that they bring out some basic and important emotions and are especially helpful for children and adults who struggle in social interactions. Just as important, dogs on school grounds set a positive, welcoming tone. They help preserve the school climate that Sindler believes Burgundy embodies: one that is accepting, supportive, and curious. “Dogs are one way to hold on to that atmosphere,” he said, adding that “schools should be fun and exciting, and dogs can be a big part of that.”

According to research, there is something distinctive about dogs that makes them so companionable. Unlike cats or snakes, dogs have evolved with humans for about 30,000 years, developing skills that make them adept at understanding social and emotional cues from humans. For example, dogs make eye contact and follow where a person points. When frightened, they seek comfort from humans. And according to Yale researcher, Molly Crossman, who studies how humans interact with dogs, “there is encouraging evidence that dogs cant reduce stress.”

Hospitals, nursing homes, colleges and and other large places for people have pounced on such studies and brought in dogs and other animals as a way to reduce stress among their populations. But there’s one large cohort usually excluded from the canine influx: children in public schools. With the exception of service and police dogs, ordinary ones are largely absent from public schools. Many towns pass ordinances that even forbid dogs from stepping on school property or taking up residence there. Some school districts also enact “no-dogs’ rules to protect children who are afraid of dogs or allergic to them, and keep school property free of dog waste.

A program that started in New York City incorporates dogs in ordinary classrooms may be challenging the no-dogs rule.  A program launched in 2016 by the Department of Education, pairs select dogs with participating New York City schools. Begun as a pilot with seven schools, the program expanded at the start of the 2017 school year to include  elementary, middle and high schools. Chancellor of City Schools Carmen Fariña gave the go-ahead for the idea when a fifth-grade boy from Queens made the suggestion. In addition to offering comfort, some of the dogs are deployed in teachers’ lesson plans to encourage empathy, cooperation and decision-making. “It’s an innovative approach to social-emotional learning,” said Miranda Barbot, a spokeswoman at the NYC education department who is familiar with the program

Nina is a 9-month-old boxer/beagle mix with a toffee-colored coat and a distinctive underbite. Rescued from a shelter in Virginia who made her way up to New York and now trots off to a high school in Brooklyn with Dave Robinson, an assistant principal there who adopted her. Robinson and school principal. Hoogenboom applied to the Comfort Dog Program when they heard how well it had worked in elementary and middle schools around the city. “Our attitude was, if something’s good, let’s do it here,”

Abraham Lincoln High School educates some 2,000 kids from various backgrounds and is the only large high school in New York with a comfort dog.  Hoogenboom recognized that some teenagers might not want to interact with Nina, because of allergies, fear, or a cultural inhibition. Before bringing in Nina, he sent all parents a “positive option letter” that they had to sign before their child could interact with her. Having a dog in school also requires sensitivity to faculty,

Nina gets to work early in the morning, where she holds office hours so that students can drop in for social visits. After lunch, she spends two hours in counseling sessions with small groups of kids, where she wags her tail, looks at students with her doe-like eyes and exudes indiscriminate affection. Hoogenboom and Robinson said she has had a positive effect on both students and teachers. Attendance at counseling sessions has picked up because kids want to see Nina, and her presence in the meetings gets students to talk more openly. She has helped kids in crisis, offering elemental comfort that humans could not provide. And she sets a welcoming tone at school that has proved helpful in lowering tension. Robinson said, “We’ve had instances with students who were agitated and about to get in a conflict, and she helped bring them down from 10 to 0,” .

Sindler has observed similar reactions to his dogs, not only with the children at Burgundy, but also among students at a year-round school in Baltimore where he used to work. Children there often came from challenging backgrounds. Many of them lived in poverty and had to travel through dangerous neighborhoods to get to school, or shared a too-crowded home. When these emotionally needy children encountered Luke, Sindler’s benevolent Labrador, they relaxed and were more prepared to learn. The dog seemed to fill unmet emotional needs. For children whose primary experiences with dogs had been limited to frightening confrontations involving growling and teeth, the interactions with Luke also softened their perception of animals. For Sindler, including Luke was part of an effort to create a safe environment where learning could flourish.

A man from Yale was careful to point out that public enthusiasm for dogs as support animals outstrips actual evidence. Dog-crazy humans are so hopelessly bound to the animals that they may perceive emotional benefits that don’t exist. But many students and teachers swear by them. If by some decree all dogs were forced to leave campuses, something special would be lost, said Max, an eighth-grader at Burgundy who is especially happy when the math teacher’s dog lopes around during exams.

This piece was edited by my frend, Don Bellairs 

One response to “We Need More Dogs in Schools

  1. Jane Watson says:

    Excellent – needed now more than ever. Thanks for reposting.


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