“You’re a Facebook famous puppy,” my family friend said in an excited, smiling tone as she reached out to pet my dog. This was the first reaction when Bailey walked in to a meeting I was attending.
My dad’s Facebook profile overflows with pictures of a short, long haired and tan dog with white spots and the fluffiest white tail you can imagine. Bailey, our flood-rescue dog, has the face of a chihuahua and the body of a papillon. If you examined my dad’s profile page even a little, it would be hard to believe Bailey wasn’t the only member of the Solomon family. There is no way to really know our family without knowing Bailey. Along with pictures of her sitting on his office chair or posing with pumpkins for fall, you can find pictures of her visiting with her fans: people who love to be visited by this happy pup and request her presence.
Aside from her modeling “career,” Bailey and my dad, Jim Solomon, are a registered therapy dog team through Tiger HATS LSU. In the midst of the Louisiana floods of 2016, this lost dog followed my dad through the streets near a home he was helping to fix. After searching for her home and not having any success, he soon adopted her, and began to realize how even-tempered she was. Having just moved from Newtown, CT, Jim had experienced therapy dogs himself after the Sandy Hook tragedy, and Bailey reminded him of the positive impact they had on him. He wanted to find a way to share her sweetness with others.
In “The Effect of Therapy Dogs on Children in a Learning Environment,” Kimberly Ann Scheckler defines a therapy dog as “a dog trained to provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, people with learning difficulties, and stressful situations, such as disaster areas.” These dogs are trained and evaluated through many organizations such as Love on a Leash, Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs, and The Delta Society Pet Partners. Screening and examining of the owner/handler is also performed through these individual groups.
Therapy dogs are used for animal assisted therapy, which means they comfort anyone through petting or just viewing, and they have been found to have many positive benefits. Just a few of these benefits are outlined by Christine Cochran of Roxy Therapy Dogs. In just “15 minutes of petting a dog: blood pressure drops 10%; serotonin rises (relaxation); cortisol decreases (bad mood); dopamine increases (depression fighting); and anxiety is reduced.” There are many physical benefits to visiting with a therapy dog in a short amount of time. Adolescents, and those who parent or work with them, are no strangers to the challenges that can pop up during this critical time in our development. Stress and pressure is inevitable. But, sometimes, more serious obstacles like depression and anxiety can affect an adolescents’ schooling experience.
Helping with obstacles such as these, dogs can also provide a sense of belonging, as Mary Louise O’Brien states in her article “Pets as Counselors.” She notices that dogs will “love you (unconditionally) just the way you are.” There is no need to impress a dog or to feel judged because they have no way to process it. It also becomes easy to trust them, as they are incapable of repeating your information.
To utilize the positive effects of therapy dogs, Tiger HATS facilitates a program in the Baton Rouge community. The organization holds classes to allow dog owners and their pets to learn more about becoming a team through the organization Pet Partners International. The duo must then pass a series of exams to become certified and gain an insurance coverage policy. After this, the teams will be sent out to locations around Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to visit locations and bring joy to difficult situations. One of Bailey’s most visited places is the Our Lady of the Lake Hospital, where she gets to cheer up patients who are recovering or families of loved ones in a state of emergency.
After seeing the impact the two made on others, I decided to become a registered therapy dog team with Bailey. I now get to take her to the Parker House, a “Therapeutic Group Home in Louisiana for children ages 3-13 who… have been diagnosed with a severe behavioral disorder or a mental illness,” according to Volunteers of America. I get to introduce her to kids who seek comfort and share funny stories about her to gift them with a moment of peace in the midst of their chaos. In just the two visits I’ve had at the house, I’ve seen the difference therapy dogs make in these children’s lives. Their eyes light up, and they become ecstatic when they get to walk or hug her. Bailey becomes their own piece of joy in the moment, and they become disappointed when she has to leave, but they hold on to the hope that they’ll see her, along with the other dogs who visit, again the next month.
Audrey Hendler, the founder of a therapy dog program in New York City, A Fair Shake for Youth, visits students alongside dogs to teach them about empathy. She found that the middle schoolers she reached out to gained empathy and confidence as they realized the dogs were relating and listening to them. She also noticed that “Having an adult tell them they’ll be back next week and then showing up is a big deal to these kids… [because] adults aren’t always a consistent part of their life.” Not only does this example show the joy dogs can bring, but it can relate to the sense of trust the kids at the Parker House begin to experience.
I began to realize that if registered therapy dogs are this beneficial, why don’t we see them utilized more often and in different environments? I think they should become a new norm. I’d like to see them more often roaming hallways in schools or even in other environments that may cause stress, such as an airport or a mall. When looking at schools, it’s important that these places of education are open to trying out new things, and Episcopal has proven this is possible. Bailey has made appearances here at Episcopal for educational purposes and has been welcomed happily by the counseling staff and administration. With clear benefits and insurance fighting against potential drawbacks, there is little to no room left to argue against the implementation of therapy dogs. Just a moment of petting these sweet creatures can bring a great amount of relief, and I’d love to share that with others, as I know the feeling myself.
This idea of therapy dogs being used in schools were first introduced to me after the Sandy Hook tragedy when they helped me and my classmates in the search for comfort. To learn more about this experience that lead to my research, click here.
Ashley Solomon has been a student at the Episcopal School of Baton Rouge since her sophomore year and is an Honors Diploma candidate. In addition to her involvement in the Thesis program, she participates in cross country, Mock Trial, and is the community service coordinator for the National Honors Society. Her thesis explores the importance of mental health in adolescents and the effects of implementing therapy dogs in a school setting.