Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell

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Posted on April 20, 2005
Page: 12


They work like dogs
Basehor-Linwood ahead of its time with therapy dogs


The note came to Basehor Elementary school counselor Ellen Knight from a group of students: "We would like to know if we can read to Bailey? Is this a good time?"

Bailey is one of the staff at the school, but she couldn't care less about reading mistakes. Her salary is paid in treats and affection, and although she has a generous retirement plan, it doesn't cost the district a dime. To Bailey, it's all about the attention she gets having kids sitting around on her bed. But to the students, Bailey is a friendly, non-judgmental listener.

Bailey is a yellow Labrador retriever, one of four therapy dogs in the Basehor-Linwood School District. The job of a therapy dog is to help humans feel better. The dogs have long been used in nursing homes, hospitals and with psychiatric patients to assist in therapy.

The use of therapy dogs in schools is just now becoming popular as a cutting-edge tool to assist school counselors with lessons, reading and helping students cope with a myriad of issues from depression to grief counseling. Basehor-Linwood was one of the pioneers; the district has been using therapy dogs for 11 years.

Hunter, the first therapy dog in the district, began his career at Linwood Elementary with Marilyn McGown, who is the counselor at Linwood and the Basehor's Sixth Grade Center. McGown read about therapy dogs and contacted an organization that trained them in Washington, Kan.

McGown presented her idea to the school board, telling them she would take responsibility for the dog, its food and all of its medical care. "It was really risky for the school board to approve back then because we didn't know of anyone else using therapy animals in schools," she said.

The school board approved McGown's request and Hunter is thought to be the first therapy dog to be used in a school in the state of Kansas.

Knight completed the thesis for her master's degree on therapy dogs while working for another district. She bought Bailey from a breeder who socialized the dog through training for dog shows. She brought Bailey with her when she joined Basehor Elementary. Connie Weltha joined the district as a counselor when Glenwood Ridge Elementary was added several years ago. Her therapy dogs are two golden retrievers, Bo and Chip.

All of the dogs have to be tested for good temperaments, specially trained and certified as AKC Good Citizens and socialized before they take their full-time positions in the schools.

The counselors all say there are many uses and benefits of having the dogs in the schools. Among other things, the dogs are used to help students cope with depression or special needs.

"I had a young man who suffered from panic attacks," said Weltha. "He would come in and all he needed to say was that he needed some `Chip Time'; I wouldn't even have to talk to him, he would go and sit with Chip and be fine."

The dogs are also used in helping the counselors deliver different lessons to the students. The lessons at the first of the year begin with how to treat and respect animals. The counselors deliver two lessons to each class every month. Last week, the lesson given to students was on choosing a career and diversity.

The students in the third-grade class at Basehor Elementary compared the dogs' differences and similarities. They also discussed the dogs' careers and what would best suit each dog based on its personality. The children then evaluated their own personalities to suit different careers.

The idea for therapy dogs in schools is spreading. Steve Woolf, principal at Tonganoxie Middle School, said there are many districts throughout the state now using therapy dogs. The Tonganoxie School Board will review this summer whether Woolf can use River, a black Labrador already specially trained by Cares Inc., a Kansas company that now trains therapy dogs specifically for schools. River obeys 43 commands and has been socialized and tested for work with children.

"I teach part-time at KU and I've already taken River to class and he really works the classroom," said Woolf. "I'm really looking forward to it, and our special education teacher and counselor is really pumped."

Another use for therapy dogs in schools is to help children cope with the loss of a pet or a loved one at home.

"For kids who have lost a pet, just to sit with the dogs at school is wonderful," said Weltha.

The counselors realize that one day they will have to deal with their own grief over the loss of their therapy dogs, as well as help the students deal with theirs. Hunter is now 13 and already endured a life-threatening illness last year. All three elementary schools raised money for his veterinary bills.

"It will be hard because we are usually the ones to do the grief counseling," said McGown.

Knight added, "But it will be OK, because it's what happens in life and everyone will be supportive because everyone is vested in the relationship" with Hunter.

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