Shaler Area school board approves therapy dog on campus
Tuesday, December 3, 2019 | 12:01 AM
The Shaler Area school board unanimously voted to permit high school social worker LeeAnn Guido to bring her certified therapy dog on campus for animal-assisted therapy.
The therapy dogs in schools policy is one of the first of its kind in Southwestern Pennsylvania, according to an Oct. 9 board meeting.
Starting Dec. 3, Guido will partner with her own 4-year-old labradoodle, Pepper, with the goals of reducing students’ stress, improving physical and emotional well-being and self-esteem, lowering blood pressure, decreasing anxiety and increasing “the likelihood of successful academic achievement,” per the policy.
Guido decided to have Pepper certified through the Alliance for Therapy Dogs when a fellow mental health professional told Guido about the therapist’s success connecting with a girl while feeding the ducks together at the park — the girl opened up emotionally when the animals distracted her.
Guido said she thought Pepper could provide a similar distraction and allow students to feel comfortable speaking freely.
Pepper may also increase academic success, according to Guido.
“My hope is that by providing students an opportunity to seek out Pepper, maybe if somebody is anxious before a test, they can stop by the office for a two-minute visit with Pepper and then that will help to calm them down and then they can go into their classroom ready to take a test; then that will be great,” the social worker said.
Furthermore, Guido hopes that the opportunity to see Pepper serves as an incentive for school attendance.
“If they (students) are not attending school, then they are not learning and therefore they are not achieving.”
The new policy is therapy dog-specific. A service dog is “specifically assigned to one individual to meet their need,” Guido explained. Dogs trained to assist individuals with visual impairments or seizure disorders are examples.
Guido said Pepper “brings joy to people” and “puts a smile on their faces.”
“She kind of is a creature of comfort. Her job is to provide comfort to people who are in distress, but she is not assigned to a particular person,” Guido said, explaining Pepper’s role.
Guido and Pepper will ideally work together three days per week. Guido will remove Pepper to a separate area if a student or employee has allergies or an aversion to dogs. The dog will stay in Guido’s office during the day and return home with her at night.
To become a certified therapy dog team, Guido took a written test and Pepper underwent an obedience exam. Educators observed them in multiple settings, such as at a nursing home, school and medical facility.
Guido will carry her own liability insurance for Pepper.
The social worker is thankful to Shaler Area administration for supporting her endeavor.
“The district in general is willing to do what is best for kids. So, I appreciate that they were kind of willing to go out on a limb to be the first to have an initiative like this.”