Shaler Area School Board to vote on therapy dog policy

Tuesday, October 29, 2019 | 12:01 AM


Some Shaler Area High School students are eagerly awaiting a new staff member’s arrival.

If the school board passes its therapy dogs in schools policy Nov. 20, a labradoodle named Pepper would partner with school social worker LeeAnn Guido 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,” according to the proposed policy.

“Animal assisted therapy is a goal-driven intervention, which is directed and/or delivered by a health, human, or education service professional and is meant to improve physical, social, emotional and/or cognitive function of an individual. A therapy dog is a dog that has been individually trained, evaluated and registered with his/her handler to provide animal-assisted activities, animal-assisted therapy and animal-assisted interactions within a school or other facility. Therapy dogs are not the same as ‘emotional support animals’ or ‘service animals,’ ’’ the document states.

Pepper, Guido’s personal dog, is an Alliance of Therapy Dogs-certified canine. In order to gain certification, Guido and Pepper trained in multiple settings, including at schools and nursing homes.

“I did some work over the summer to acclimate Pepper to the high school. I didn’t just want to bring her in to the building with students,” Guido said at an Oct. 9 meeting.

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.

The board policy states the students may engage in the following behaviors with the dog: petting, hugging, speaking and reading to, and giving simple commands.

“I have also talked to the administration about using her as kind of a reward,” Guido said. “Maybe to special education students writing it into their positive behavior support plan. … Or even as an entire classroom maybe in the emotional support classroom. Maybe if the whole classroom attends school. If you’re in class and on time, five days in a row, then on Friday, we’ll get a 10-minute visit from Pepper as a reward.”

“Will the school district incur any costs, like, will we have to pay for your certification and the dog’s certification?” board member Jeanne Petrovich asked.

“I didn’t intend on asking for reimbursement. I pay $65 per year to be a member for the Alliance for Therapy Dogs, but we do volunteer in the community, so there’s that membership. The additional liability insurance costs $200. I did not have intentions of asking the board to reimburse me. I did think about applying for the scholarship that is available that is offered by the (Shaler Area) Education Foundation,” Guido responded.

Guido will “assume full responsibility and liability for any damage to school property or injury to others” in the school caused by Pepper, according to the policy. She will submit Pepper’s vaccination and dog license records to the district.

Superintendent Sean Aiken said Avonworth and North Allegheny school districts have used therapy dogs to some extent.

“I spoke with my brother who’s a superintendent in the Lancaster area, and he said the neighboring school district has utilized four therapy dogs on somewhat of a regular basis. I think in other parts of the state they are a little more progressive and it’s happening more and more. It just hasn’t caught on as much in Western Pennsylvania yet.”