Student Well-Being

Using Therapy Dogs in Schools: 8 Do’s and Don’ts

By Evie Blad — January 24, 2023 4 min read
A large gold dog rests lies on the ground and looks at a group of children who are sitting nearby as they listen to a story.
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Therapy dogs aren’t a new concept, but schools are using them in new, creative ways to address urgent student needs.

As Education Week recently reported, educators have turned to school therapy dogs to help students deal with stress, process mental health concerns, and boost academic engagement.

But starting a school therapy dog program involves more than stationing a puppy in a classroom, experienced handlers say. And the process can be a bit complicated to navigate for a principal, counselor, or teacher who is just starting out.

Here are a few dos and don’ts from educators who’ve been there.

Don’t focus on dog breeds

There’s a misconception that only certain breeds make good therapy dogs, said Helen Holmquist-Johnson, the director of Human-Animal Bond in Colorado, a research center at Colorado State University that helps train and screen volunteer handlers to work in schools in the region.

“I think therapy work is breed-inclusive,” she said. “We work with a number of dogs you might not immediately think of as a therapy dog.”

In Loveland, Colo., for example, handlers bring many kinds of dogs to school—everything from a tiny chihuahua to a giant Bernese mountain dog.

School Therapy Dogs

A large black dog in a halter that says "therapy dog" looks at the camera while students gather around him and pet his fur.
Shadow, a therapy dog at Morris Elementary School in Morris, Okla., greets students after an assembly Jan. 17.
Michael Noble Jr. for Education Week

Holmquist-Johnson has also seen plenty of mixed breeds adopted from animal shelters thrive in therapy dog work. That includes blind dogs, dogs with three legs, and dogs who faced neglect earlier in life. Sometimes students connect with dogs’ stories, making the bond more meaningful, she said.

“It’s really quite a transformative story when that happens,” she said.

Do focus on dog temperament

The most important thing in selecting a therapy dog is finding an animal that loves people, Holmquist-Johnson said.

Dogs should feel comfortable interacting with a variety of students and adults. They should also be engaging and friendly with people who may be shy or less comfortable around dogs, handlers told Education Week.

Once a dog is on the job, schools should ensure that they have plenty of breaks so they don’t feel overwhelmed in a high-sensory environment, said Jennifer VonLintel, a school counselor at B.F. Kitchen Elementary School in Loveland. Her therapy dog, a cavalier King Charles spaniel mix named Toby, only comes to school one day a week to ensure he has the energy to be present with students.

Don’t bring a therapy dog into a school without creating goals

A school therapy dog is not just a classroom pet, handlers said. They should have specific purposes within a school.

In the last few decades, educators have worked to directly involve dogs in therapies for students with disabilities. For example, a student may strengthen fine motor skills by pulling beads off of a dog’s soft coat. Or a student who has difficulty perceiving peers’ relational cues may practice recognizing the signs that a dog is relaxed and content.

Dogs also serve as walking behavior incentives, handlers said. Some schools include rules for interacting with dogs—like how to greet them and how to respect their boundaries—in their schoolwide behavior expectations. Playtime with a dog, like a game of fetch, can also serve as a reward for improved behavior.

Do designate a handler to monitor each dog’s interactions with students

On-site therapy dogs may be familiar to the entire student population, but every animal should have one consistent adult handler, VonLintel.

Handlers are trained to interpret dogs’ body language, recognize when they need a break, and get the most out of their interactions with students, she said. Passing a dog from teacher-to-teacher is less effective and can be less safe if some of those adults are less familiar with its training and physical cues.

Don’t assume your school needs its own dog

Schools don’t necessarily need to train and manage their own dog on-site, VonLintel said.

Educators with trained volunteer handlers who bring in their own dogs and manage things like training, certification, and insurance.

Schools can contact local volunteer handler groups or consult organizations like Pet Partners or the American Kennel Club to locate teams.

Do find a great training program

School dogs should be trained through a specialized therapy dog program that exposes them to a variety of people and unfamiliar situations.

They should be comfortable around wheelchairs and other mobility devices, and they should know how to respond quickly and consistently to their handler, trainers said.

Don’t ignore student limits

Schools should consult with parents and educators to be aware of students who have allergies or aversions to dogs, avoiding specific classrooms or situations where furry friends may not be welcome, the experts said.

Administrators should also be aware of any assistance dogs or guide dogs used by students with disabilities and ensure it will be safe and non-disruptive to have the animals in the same room, they said.

Do get insurance coverage for school therapy dogs

Insurance for therapy dogs covers the cost of liability if the animals injure a person. If a therapy dog is managed by the school or one of its employees, that insurance may come through a professional organization, like a school social workers organization, through the school’s existing insurance plan, through a handler’s homeowner’s insurance, or through a supplemental plan, depending on various state and local laws.

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