District studying impact of canines on kids’ learning - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

District studying impact of canines on kids’ learning

October 4th, 2019 development
District studying impact of canines on kids’ learning

By Kevin Reagan
Staff Writer

There’s a girl at Weinberg Elementary who had hardly spoken to anyone since the start of this school year.

Staff described her as possibly suffering from selective mutism, an anxiety disorder that inhibits kids from socializing.

One day, a therapy dog was brought to the girl’s classroom. At the end of a lesson, the girl walked up to her teacher and casually described the dog she has at home.

“It was like jaw-dropping,” said Sam Basso, a professional dog trainer.

He and his partner, Barb Farmer, like to tell this story when discussing their new program in the Chandler Unified School District.

They think the mute girl demonstrates the power dogs can have in a school setting. That’s why they’ve agreed to bring certified therapy dogs to Weinberg’s classrooms for the whole school year.

“We’re getting blown away by some of the stuff that’s happening,” Basso added.

Their program, Dogs in Grade Schools, is not intended to be just a fun activity. Basso considers it an experiment to see whether dogs can scientifically improve academic performance.

They will be collecting data on student attendance, discipline, and surveying staff on school climate. They’re also in talks with an Arizona State University professor to analyze all their data for an official study.

“We’re thinking on a much higher level in terms of what could be done,” Basso said.

School dogs are not a new concept, as canines have been brought into classrooms all over Arizona for years.

Basso said their program is aiming to be more systematized, with set rules and procedures, so it can be easily replicated in other schools.

In addition, he said dogs are often only brought in to help a specific type of student. They want their dogs to serve everyone at Weinberg.

“This is not for just kids with maybe a reading disability or a behavioral problem,” Basso said. “This is for the whole school.”

The pilot project originated with the volunteers wanting to spread some joy in local schools.

Farmer said she and Basso were talking about the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School that left 20 children dead, and wondered how they could use their skills to prevent another tragedy.

“All of these school shootings have really impacted our hearts,” Farmer said.

Farmer had supervised a dog-therapy program at Dignity Health and Basso’s been training dogs in the Valley for several years.

So, they knew they had the resources and ability to introduce a dog-therapy program. But then came the challenge of finding a place to do it.

Farmer said it took her two years to find a school willing to let them bring dogs into the classroom. There were a lot of questions and concerns, she said, about how a program like theirs would work.

They eventually found an administrator open to the idea at Weinberg Elementary and the district’s governing board officially approved of the partnership in August.

“We want kids to look forward to coming to school,” said Weinberg Principal Shirley Mathew. “School needs to be a happy place.”

The dogs have brought a great level of excitement to the school, she added, and teachers are finding ways to incorporate them into curriculum.

For example, the principal recalled a teacher who recently taught a lesson on circles and had a therapy dog walk in circles in front of the class.

“We’ve made the dog part of the learning process,” Mathew said.

The dogs have greeted kindergartners on the first day of school, accompanied students on the playground, and served as models for art projects.

They’re also motivating students to finish their assignments quicker, as some teachers allow students to pet the dog once they’ve turned in their work.

The volunteers have enough trained dogs to bring at least one on-campus each day. The school’s counselor advises them which classrooms would benefit most from having a dog and the animal will typically interact with students for up to an hour.

Farmer said she’s come home in tears after witnessing some of the canine interactions at Weinberg. She remembered one student who was so comforted by a dog’s presence; he found the confidence to read aloud in front of the class.

“With all this negativity in the world, it’s kind of nice to feel like you’re making a difference in a positive way,” Farmer said.

Basso and Farmer have agreed to conduct their project for the whole school year. Once they’ve collected their data, they will decide whether to bring dogs to other CUSD schools.

Some academic studies already have found possible evidence that therapy dogs can boost student literacy and psychological well-being.

Basso believes their dogs will have a lasting impact on Weinberg’s students and he’s curious to see how they’ll perform in high school.

“We think there’s going to be longer-term effects here,” he added. “We don’t think it’s just going to be a short-term effect.”