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Therapy dogs valued members of staff at Corridor schools

CEDAR RAPIDS — Jade naps on the floor, her eyes closed and her breathing even.

Suddenly she gets up and leaves the room. A peek around the office door finds her sitting in the hallway, her head on a student’s lap.

There isn’t a sound, but the student’s calm stroking of Jade’s head says everything.

“She knows when she’s needed,” said Kathy Miller, principal at Prairie Edge School in Cedar Rapids. “She knows it’s her job to help our students.”

It’s a job that has been Jade’s for almost eight years.

The first therapy dog in the College Community school district, Jade was purchased by Miller after hearing positive reports about the Muscatine school district’s therapy dog. Students’ behavior — and their reading ability — had improved. Miller hoped for similar results at Edge, especially for students who struggled with their emotions.

“Jade took to it naturally,” Miller said. “If she heard a kid screaming, she’d just go to them. They pet her and quiet down immediately.”

Edge students read to Jade. They pet her and hug her when they’re frustrated. They take her out to recess. She even has her school picture taken every year. Jade is as much a part of the school as Miller or any of the staff.

It’s the same thing at any school that has a therapy dog.

“It’s not just someone bringing in their family pet for the students to play with one day,” said Shannon Bucknell, principal at Franklin Middle School in Cedar Rapids. “These dogs are trained for the jobs that they do.”

Franklin has used therapy dogs for more than 20 years. The school currently has two — golden retriever Hally and border collie Rose — who attend school every Friday. Both dogs are certified by Therapy Dogs International and work to help students communicate.

Hally, who is owned by Linda Aubey, a psychologist with Grant Wood AEA, works specifically with Franklin’s special-education population. Rose, who is owned by the school counselor, Tracy O’Dell, works with the general population.

“There are things that animals provide that we just can’t,” Aubey said. “I believe dogs have sense that we don’t have. They are great for self-esteem, comfort and unconditional caring. No one can convince me that a therapy dog is not an additional learning tool.”

Jennifer Neira, counselor at Prairie View Elementary School in Cedar Rapids, said therapy dog Marley helps students communicate.

“When I have to meet with kids, she’s just that great icebreaker,” Neira said. “She helps them open up and share.”

The fact that Marley is a yellow Labrador, just like the dog in “Marley & Me,” has led to View staff using Marley for reading and writing assignments. Marley also has worked with the school’s preschool students for lessons in animal care.

Jade and Marley are two of College Community’s five therapy dogs. Both had to complete and pass the training program at Canine Assistance, Rehabilitation, Education and Services Inc. (C.A.R.E.S.) in Concordia, Kan., to work in their schools.

Their handlers had to complete the training, too.

The Iowa City school district’s only therapy dog, Sidda, also is certified through C.A.R.E.S. Penn Elementary School Principal Julie Robinson added Sidda to her staff in November 2006.

Sidda regularly walks the North Liberty school’s halls with Robinson. She listens to students read and gives comfort to those who need it. She also serves as a reward for students working toward a goal, either individually or through Sidda Awards.

Sidda Awards are given to classrooms that meet a group goal, such as 100 percent homework completion for the week. When the class meets the goal, they earn the Sidda Trophy.

“We actually have a big trophy with a dog on top,” Robinson said. “They also get their picture taken with Sidda and a certificate posted in the hall.”

Not every student is enthusiastic about having a dog at school. Some students are allergic to dogs or afraid of them. In those situations, the dog is kept away from such students. Miller said most of her students who express fear later befriend Jade.

“We had one student who was petrified,” she said. “Then one day he’s reading at his desk, and Jade goes over and sits next to him. Next, he’s petting her.”

When asked why he wasn’t afraid, the boy simply said, “Jade’s my friend. She’d never hurt me.”

It’s that unconditional love that makes a dog’s presence at school so successful.

“They are just a positive influence on a student’s life,” Miller said. “Jade gives kids that unconditional love and acceptance. No matter how bad their behavior, she’s still going to love them. Animals don’t hold a grudge.”

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