Palos School District 128 has launched a Therapy Dog visitation program for students at Navajo Elementary and Independence Jr. High in Palos Heights. (Supplied photos)

Palos School District 128 has launched a Therapy Dog visitation program for students at Navajo Elementary and Independence Jr. High in Palos Heights. (Supplied photos)

District 128 schools are going to the dogs and the kids love it

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By Kelly White

Pet therapy has also been shown to improve energy levels, self-esteem, social skills, verbal communication and mood, as well as decrease depression.

Palos Heights School District 128 made the decision to bring pet therapy into the classroom to help both its students and staff reap these benefits while enjoying the company of canine companions.

“It was obvious the first day the dogs visited to be introduced at an all-school assembly the benefits we were going to realize from this program,” Supt. Merryl Brownlow said. “The feeling in the building was electric. You could see the high level of enthusiasm surrounding the opportunity in all the smiles and positive responses from students and staff to having the dogs in the building.”

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District 128 has launched a Therapy Dog visitation program for students at Navajo Elementary and Independence Jr. High.

Brownlow was approached last year by a staff member whose mother is one of the lead coordinators of the program, Bright & Beautiful Therapy Dogs Inc., in the local area.

Bright & Beautiful Therapy Dogs is a 501 nonprofit organization dedicated to training, evaluating and qualifying people and their well-behaved dogs as therapy dog teams. Founded in 1999 and authorized in all 50 states, Bright & Beautiful has certified more than 14,000 members and dogs that frequent libraries, hospitals, schools and more.

“Post pandemic, we have seen a need to find for more ways to rebuild connections with our students, particularly socially and emotionally, given the social constraints that we all experienced over the last couple of years,” Brownlow said. “As we launched this school year, this program felt like a perfect way to bring even more positive energy to our school cultures and climates in support of students and provide an opportunity for connection. There is nothing like the unconditional love of a furry friend to lift a person’s spirits. It took a few months to get the logistics organized, but we were so thrilled to be able to start the new year with its implementation.”

The coordination of the program was a collaborative effort between Bonnie Littleton from Bright and Beautiful Inc., Brownlow and two principals from participating schools, Dr. Kevin Kirk and Dr. Kaitlin Curran.

Two to three dogs will visit Navajo Heights Elementary School and Independence Junior High School, visiting fourth- through eighth-graders weekly.

These grades were selected by school officials because it was felt that students within these age groups can take direction well on how to interact with the dogs and are developmentally these are the ideal age groups to target for this program in the school setting.

Students will rotate in for therapy dog visits. Any student wishing to participate will have at least one opportunity each trimester, although the dogs will be visible to all students in the school environment coming and going on their visits.

There may also be instances when students may be having a particularly difficult time, and in those cases, the district may schedule more regular visits for those particular students.

Parent communication was shared for the program, providing students with the option to decline participation, particularly for those students with a dander allergy or a fear of dogs.

“Beyond contributing to a positive school culture and climate, there is a huge individual student benefit when having the opportunity to spend time with the dogs one on one,” Brownlow said. “I believe we will be able to foster a connectedness for students like this that may have social emotional challenges in school. I believe the experience with the dogs will transcend into experiences with peers and in school, providing students with a positive experience to share.”

A 2019 study published by the National Institute of Health (linked) found that a dog present in the classroom promotes positive mood and provides significant anti-stress effects on the body, and Brownlow said that is definitely true for her district.

“Dogs provide unconditional love and I think that this program will help nurture relationships across our two schools with their presence,” Brownlow said. “When we sent our parent communication out regarding this program, we received an overwhelmingly positive response in support of this opportunity.”

Educators within the district are just as happy with the program as the parents.

“I like how the therapy dogs provide comfort and social emotional learning support for our students,” Kaitlin Curran, Principal at Navajo Heights Elementary School, said. “When the dogs arrive at Navajo, it immediately brightens everyone’s day. Students skip down the hallway and have big smiles on their faces after interacting with the dogs. Seeing how it has impacted our students in such a positive way has been so rewarding.”

“The therapy dogs have been a wonderful addition to our school to promote social emotional development,” Ashley Battaglia, Social Worker at Navajo Heights Elementary School, said. “I love seeing the excitement on the student’s faces as soon as they see the therapy dogs enter the building. Students have a new outlet for expressing their emotions, and the dogs make great listeners. I am looking forward to seeing all the amazing benefits from the implementation of this program.”

This is the first year of the program and if it goes as well as anticipated, the district would hope to sustain it as long as Bright & Beautiful is able to support it.

“How 10 minutes could make such an impact on a student’s mindset is absolutely amazing,” Beth Ross, Health Aide at Independence Junior High School, said.

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District 128 has launched a Therapy Dog visitation program for students at Navajo Elementary and Independence Jr. High in Palos Heights.

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