Helping Hounds

Therapy Dogs Help Young and Old Find Emotional Support

Susan Comeau knows the truth. When people stop by her desk at Andover’s South Elementary School to visit these days, they aren’t there to see her. 

Don’t worry, Comeau doesn’t get angry. She gets it: They want to visit LuLu, her year-and-a-half-old French bulldog. LuLu is the school’s beloved therapy dog, and in all likelihood the most popular member of the school community.

Therapy dogs are a growing presence in schools, nursing homes and hospitals. When they’re at work, they offer emotional and social support, inspire happiness and conversation, and enhance morale.

“I had no idea how this was going to take off and how important she would become to the kids,” says Comeau, of Andover.

Comeau knew she wanted to train her family pet to become a therapy dog, so she asked her breeder to point out which dog in the litter would be best suited for the task.

The breeder instantly pointed toward LuLu.

Since completing her training about eight months ago and beginning her job at South School, where Comeau is an administrative assistant, LuLu has become a familiar friend. She spends a couple of hours each day at the school, where she works with students who have having problems with speech and language, or with those who need extra attention or affection. 

Susan Comeau relaxes with LuLu, her year-and-a-half old French bulldog, and Andover South Elementary School’s beloved therapy dog. Photo by Kevin Harkins.

“Already, she’s had such an impact on so many kids,” Comeau says. 

Comeau’s experience is far from uncommon. Across the Merrimack Valley, many school districts have welcomed therapy dogs into their buildings.

At Salisbury Elementary School (SES), educators have long understood the important role therapy dogs can play. The school is visited regularly by two dogs.

Colleen Poulin, the school’s speech/language pathologist, began the extensive training to certify Murphy, her poodle, as a therapy dog shortly after she brought him home in May 2017.

At Salisbury Elementary, teachers and staff work to develop reading and math skills for all students, and an understanding of empathy, which is where Murphy can help, Poulin says. “They are learning empathy just by interacting with him,” she says. “They are developing a relationship that is based on trust and compassion. We talk about how it is important to have a ‘thinking of you’ when playing with Murphy.”

Murphy visits classrooms, takes walks with students who may need a break, and listens to the kids (he is an “unconditional listener,” Poulin explains).

In addition, Murphy’s presence is helpful for students who have experienced trauma, says Barbara Oswald, the school’s occupational therapist.

“Murphy is a calm dog; he makes people feel calm,” she says. 

Poulin agrees. “Just having him here,” she says, “changes the whole game for kids.”

In addition to Murphy, SES students have a chance to visit with another canine helper. Bear, a 4-year-old golden retriever, offers support and guidance to kids who need it. During MCAS exams, he visits each testing classroom. Bear’s owner, Beth Sayre-Scibona, is one of the school’s retired teachers.

Sayre-Scibona says she always thought Bear would make a good therapy dog, and when she retired, she decided to pursue the idea.

“For me, it was a really nice way to combine my love of dogs with my love of kids and teaching,” she says. “A friend who has a therapy dog, as well, recently commented to me: ‘It’s like you just go around and spread joy.’ And it’s true.”

When it comes to therapy dogs, breed isn’t a factor. Any dog can be a therapy dog, as long as it has the right disposition and personality.

At Rupert A. Nock Middle School in Newburyport, interventionist Brenda Palmisano has been bringing Skipper to school as a therapy dog for four years.

About five years ago, her now 16-year-old son, Alex, heard about the therapy dog program and wanted to train their miniature goldendoodle.

Comeau and LuLu read a story with (l-r) Caleb, Jackson, Riley, Fetiha and Sophia. Photo by Kevin Harkins.

She and her son completed a training course in Cambridge, and Alex soon began bringing Skipper to college campuses during midterm and final exam periods.

These days, Skipper works primarily at the Nock, where he spends three days a week walking the hallways, visiting classrooms and interacting with students and staff.

The impact has been tremendous, Palmisano says. Some kids wouldn’t come to school at all before Skipper, and now he’s the reason that they are showing up. 

But, Palmisano says, the student aren’t the only ones who look forward to visits. 

“[The staff] actually seek him out as much as the kids do,” she says.

Liz Cleaves, a Tewksbury-based Therapy Dogs International (TDI)-certified evaluator and American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen evaluator, has seen firsthand the incredible effect dogs can have in traumatic situations, and for those in need of emotional support or social interaction, during her years as a volunteer with TDI.

Last spring, Cleaves and several other TDI volunteers quickly arranged a visit to Tewksbury Memorial High School after a lockdown left students under considerable stress. The group was there for three hours, much longer than a typical visit to a school or health care facility.

“We were needed,” Cleaves says. “The kids just flooded them.” One student thanked the group, saying she had dreaded returning to school following the incident, but they turned it into “the
best day.”

Cleaves, who volunteers weekly with her dogs at Tewksbury Hospital, attributes the increasing popularity of therapy dogs over the last few years to, among other things, society’s recognition of the benefits. 

“Dogs are super empathetic,” she says. For some patients at the hospital, family members may be far away, and Cleaves and her dogs may be their only visitors. 

“There are patients who won’t talk to the nurses who will talk to the dog,” she says. 

Debra Fiebranz, another volunteer at the hospital, says the bond between her dog and patients can be so strong that she is sometimes asked to pay a visit during a person’s final hours. 

“Those are the most emotional visits,” she says.

“It’s emotional,” Cleaves agrees, “but it’s such a privilege.”  

Liz Cleaves
Tewksbury, Mass.
(978) 455-9967
AuntieDog.com

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