The Case for Fido in the Classroom
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, September/October 2019 Issue
By Alex Newman
When law student Michelle Woolfrey was 16, a rare brain condition led to severe visual impairment and sight loss. For the first year or so, she walked with a cane, but unfortunately, she experienced severe bullying from her classmates.
So, she soon transferred to the School for the Blind in Brantford, ON, some 250 km away. During her second year of attendance at the new school, she received a fully-trained service Poodle named Thompson who replaced the cane. The following year, Woolfrey was able to return to her hometown of Barrie, ON, and back to her former high school.
The difference between her year with a cane, and her year with a dog, was “night and day,” she says. “I was no longer the weird girl with the stick, but Michelle with the cute dog. We became a conversation starter rather than a conversation ender, and a way for me to make friends.”
Although Thompson wasn’t formally trained as a psychiatric service dog, he quickly learned how to calm her down—since being diagnosed, Woolfrey had developed an anxiety disorder.
Dogs also assist with other special needs, especially students with autism. Retired special education teacher Margaret Marsh witnessed this firsthand during her years at the Waterloo Regional School Board in Ontario.
“Autistic children tend to be runners and a dog prevents that, and that in turn prevents a lot of class disruption. The dog’s job is to stay with the child, so [the] teacher can concentrate on teaching and that can bring calmness into the class.”
Autism Speaks Canada is a huge promoter of therapy dogs, saying, “For the family living with autism, dogs provide important therapeutic support. Both research and pet therapy providers alike support that dogs provide important pet therapy to individuals with autism which help improve their social interaction, increase attention and cooperation, decrease anxiety and provide support for independence skills.”
Dogs aren’t only beneficial to the individual child with special needs—interaction with them benefits general students as well. According to a study by the National Institutes of Health in the U.S., the presence of a dog in the classroom promotes a positive mood and reduces stress, while also encouraging concentration, attention, and relaxation.
Even touching and petting a dog lowers blood pressure and heart rate, thereby lowering the cortisol stress hormone. And a dog trained in “reading” mood changes can mean the difference between an orderly classroom and a chaotic one.
Marsh says, that in her experience, the dogs chosen for this kind of service are smart, well trained, and know what is expected of them. “It’s when they’re not trained, or even a family pet, that you run into trouble.”
Jane Morrey, a special education teacher with the Simcoe County District School Board in Barrie, ON, has experienced both good and not so good situations. “One of our autistic students had the best dog—well trained, calmed the child right down. But another student’s dog was a disaster. On its first day, it peed in the hall and the Mom brushed it off as nervousness because of normal school commotion. Sorry, but these dogs should be trained to stay calm under any circumstance.”
Morrey adds that things became worse in that particular situation because, when agitated, the child would attack the dog. Teachers had to protect the dog by pulling the child away.
One of the problems with dogs in the class, states Alberta psychologist Eileen Bona, is a lack of national standards. Each province must develop its own. Alberta, for example, has adopted the Assistance Dog International (ADI) standard. ADI is a worldwide coalition of not-for-profit programs that train and place assistance dogs.
In Ontario, the guidelines are vague, Woolfrey says. “All you need is a doctor’s note, and you can print that off or buy one for twenty dollars, and have your dog, cat, monkey, whatever, and say it’s a therapy animal. Ontario—Canada too—needs more progressive service animal laws, and a way for folks to file complaints and to deny entry to dogs that aren’t trained properly. You can’t have a dog that bites, for example. Just this morning I was getting onto [public transit] and met a woman with [presumably] a fake service dog [that] was lunging and snapping at my dog [who could’ve reacted and pulled me down].”
It’s important to distinguish between service and therapy dogs, Bona says. Service dogs are “trained to the hilt” and often come from a long line of service dogs. They assist with specific disabilities—blindness, or seizure disorders, while therapy dogs provide comfort and support.
The lack of guidelines leads to challenges, since breeders and trainers have few parameters. There are some unscrupulous breeders who market puppies as support or wellness dogs, says Bona, who has been involved in creating, teaching, and implementing animal assisted therapy programs across Canada. “And there’s another issue of insufficient training for handlers.”
In British Columbia, abuse of the service dog system has become so great that the government now issues service dog IDs in order to weed out the fakes.
It’s not just the dog that needs certification, but the handler as well, Bona says. “They need to understand all the ethics surrounding the situation… to take into consideration all stakeholders, families, and communities.”
There is a proper way to introduce a dog to the school. Bona has been working with one school in Alberta to prepare for having a resident wellness dog. “Before the dog arrived, we had assemblies, conversations, [slideshows] about her and what to expect, [and] how to communicate and understand her. This ensures that by the time the dog gets to school there will be no chaos.”
According to Steve King, founder of Chestermere Therapy Dogs, much rests on good communication. While his Alberta non-profit provides reading buddies for short stays rather than all day in-class service dogs, the principles are similar.
“You need to physically walk those involved through the process—it’s not enough just to read about it. When a new school contacts me, I sit down with the principal and my coordinator… and we go through everything. You can almost predict the questions—mainly principals trying to ensure that this is not some amateurish effort that will backfire. And they want to know all the components: the dog, where the reading will take place, and so on.”
With a dog reading program, it’s easier for participants to sit in a separate room near the door than to bring a dog into a classroom. The idea is to minimize exposure to hair and allergens, not only for the one child, but for anyone else in the school who has allergies. That’s why reading buddy dogs are never allowed to wander around the school.
Due to the increased demand—and need—for therapy or service dogs in the classroom, schools are having to develop protocols for consistency. Upper Grand District School Board in Guelph, ON, for example, recently developed protocols, such as only allowing certified therapy dog teams, and stating that programs must be initiated by the principal.
“If everything is done properly, animals in the classroom can be an improvement to class,” Bona says. “Having policies in place will allow parents to discuss concerns with the principal. [For example,] if a child’s culture doesn’t allow for contact with dogs, or if they have allergies. Provisions need to be made for those things, and everyone informed before the dog steps foot in the school.”
Although having a dog in class is gaining currency, schools are under no obligation to accept them. An incident in the Waterloo Catholic District School Board is a good illustration of this. In 2017, after a three-year dispute with the parents of an autistic child who had a service dog, the board ruled against allowing the dog in the school, stating the child had performed equally well before the dog arrived.
While the Guide Dog Act allows service dogs in public places, under the Education Act, schools aren’t considered public spaces. This means a school board isn’t obliged to allow service or therapy dogs into the school. In the case of the Waterloo child, parents argued the Human Rights Code—and the requirement by school boards to accommodate disabilities—but lost.
All of these concerns are legitimate, Bona explains, but relatively easy to address.
Regarding cleanliness, it’s up to the handler (the child or their parents) to ensure the dog has all its shots and is healthy. All students should be informed to wash hands before and after handling the dog. To minimize allergies, handlers must groom the dog before going to the school so there is less animal dander. In cases of severe allergies, the dog would need to stay in a separate location, like an office, or the child with allergies should be permitted to move to another class. Preferably, this would be done before school starts, to prevent interrupting studies.
A whining, barking dog isn’t properly trained or supervised. Dogs need exercise and regular potty breaks, which should be scheduled ahead so they don’t disrupt classroom time.
Animals used in therapy isn’t a new thing, Bona says. “There’s a long history of the human animal bond, it waxed and waned, and then fell apart for several years, when we started using prescription meds to treat mental health symptoms. In the last ten years, however, the medical establishment recognizes the many neurochemical responses to positive contact with animals, such as decreased cortisol [stress hormone].”
Alex Newman is a Toronto freelance writer and editor. Visit her website, alexnewmanwriter.com.