By Kerry Butrick Dowling
In recent months, school districts have become creative and resourceful when it comes to helping students have access to tools that will benefit their social-emotional development. From art and music therapy, to working with external community providers, schools are facing challenging times and seeking out support for young scholars. In the Valley Central School District, the schools have sought the help and comfort of local certified therapy dogs to help students and staff meet these needs.
Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Marianne Serratore explained she has always been interested in using therapy dogs to assist students in the schools after working with them years ago as a principal and finding success in their work with students. Earlier this year, Valley Central School District Central Office and building administrators trained in a program called Inspiring Comfort. The program is based on a book by author Jenn Marr, Paws to Comfort: An Everyday Guide to Learning How You Can Help Mend Our Disconnected World. The book is about dogs being natural healers and how comfort is critical when it comes to mending our disconnected world.
Following the training, Serratore saw an advertisement for a therapy dog program at a local library. She reached out to the handler and inquired if the dog would be able to come to the Valley Central Middle School to work with students. The handler informed her that the therapy dog was part of an organization called Hudson Valley Paws For A Cause. Serratore knew that Walden Elementary School was already using the organization and reached out to see if they would be open to accommodating a second school in the district. Hudson Valley Paws For A Cause Education Coordinator Kathy Schuck and her husband agreed to come visit the school and meet with teachers and administrators to see how the dogs could best help benefit the students.
Serratore explained that she feels therapy dogs are beneficial for every school in the district and in particular middle school. Middle school is often a difficult transition for students and the challenges have only increased due to Covid 19.
“As educators, we want to do everything and anything we can to help students feel safe and happy in our school buildings. I felt the middle school aged students would benefit greatly from having a dog or dogs in the building. There is a great deal of research on how animals have the ability to help people heal. The act of petting, hugging and talking to animals have shown improvement in both an individual’s mental and physical well-being. There is also evidence that being around dogs reduces blood pressure and releases endorphins that reduce stress,” shared Serratore.
Currently, therapy dogs from Hudson Valley Paws For A Cause visit the Walden Elementary School and the Valley Central Middle School to visit with students. Hudson Valley Paws For A Cause Education Coordinator Kathy Schuck and her husband are two volunteers with the program in Valley Central and she shared their thoughts on the initiative. One of their certified therapy dogs, Ivy Grace, has limited mobility following being hit by a car when she was two years old. After an interaction with a family at a local park sparked the idea to have Ivy Grace certified as a therapy dog, the Schucks moved full steam ahead to make it happen. Now at 11 years old, Ivy Grace is a fan favorite with students and adults alike.
“Ivy Grace has no idea she is any different from anybody else. It makes me happy to see our dogs bring so much unconditional love to everybody. If you’re having a bad day she can tell and she pushes right in. It’s so rewarding for everyone,” Schuck said of the program. Ivy Grace’s pup-brother Jake is also a certified therapy dog and went through the same training program with both dogs and owners becoming certified therapy teams.
In addition, therapy dogs and handlers from Hudson Valley Paws For A Cause are partners with the American Red Cross and are available to assist with disasters/emergencies, work with military families and veterans, and other programs. Schuck explained that any dog can become certified if it completes and passes the program. “Any dog can make a wonderful therapy dog. When they’re working they know that they’re working,” she shared.
The Valley Central School District is hoping to increase the program in the future. “The dogs serve as a catalyst for social interaction between teachers/counselors and students. They assist students in relaxing and unwinding during these difficult times. At the elementary school, there is a part of this program where students read to the dogs. This builds their reading skills and confidence without any judgment. Valley Central’s partnership with Hudson Valley Paws For A Cause is truly inspiring and beneficial for our students,” said Serratore.
For more information about volunteering for pet therapy with your dog, to arrange a therapy dog visit or to make a donation please visit hudsonvalleypawsforacause.org.