Canine therapy has gained popularity and momentum throughout the world in recent decades.
From individuals dealing with post traumatic stress disorder, to those with autism, the concept of service dogs has grown exponentially from the days of seeing eye dogs.
Therapy dogs being used in schools is yet another angle.
A school in Comox has incorporated therapy dogs into a counselling program.
The Taking the Lead Program at École Au-cœur-de-l’île is into its third year, and the results have been everything Mariane Salvail had hoped for when she first introduced the concept, at the start of the 2013-2014 school year.
Salvail is a teacher and behavioural specialist at the school.
She said the idea for the program came about through discussions with her personal dog trainer, Carrie Lumsden, of K9 Kind.
“I had a (student) who was accepted to the horse therapy program (Comox Valley Therapeutic Riding Society) but he was terrified of horses,” said Salvail. “He really needed some support. So I was trying to find something, and he loved dogs. So I thought if we could teach this boy how to train dogs, it might help. That’s really how the program started.”
Lumsden comes to the school every Friday afternoon, with her Great Pyrenees, Chay, to participate in the program. Chay is a St. John’s Ambulance certified therapy dog.
One purpose of the Taking the Lead Program is to offer students a way to deal with anxiety issues.
The program comprises groups of four children, along with Salvail and Lumsden.
Salvail will counsel two students while Lumsden works with two other in a dog training session. Then they switch students.
“I take them aside and do some counselling, using the ‘Virtues Program’. That’s just a way of talking about good things. Right now we are discussing generosity. How does it feel… how they can be generous with their family, with their peers. And then Carrie works her magic with the dogs. So they get a little bit of both (counselling and therapy).”
Students are selected for the program based on school base team meetings, involving various faculty members.
School base team meetings are held periodically throughout the school year and input from the meetings is used to determine whether a student is a good fit for the program, and vice versa.
Currently there are 11 students in the program.
“There is only so much time allotted to us by the school, so we have to limit the numbers,” said Lumsden.
One of the most critical benefits of the Taking the Lead Program is the level of confidence achieved by the participants.
“For some of the kids, it’s that they don’t feel successful, and with the dogs, it gives them something, that they do, once a week, that they are good at,” said Salvail.
And it’s not just in class. The students are offered the opportunity to participate in the school’s Christmas concert, where they can show off their handling techniques with the dogs.
“Just that show, last year, there were probably three of those kids who would have never done anything like that before,” said Salvail.
Special events like the Christmas concert contribute to the increase in confidence, as it gives the Taking the Lead students a measure of “star power” among their peers.
“The others will come up to them and say ‘wow, that was amazing. How did you do that?’ And that’s really good for my kids, because they are the kids that need that. They aren’t on the sports teams; they aren’t the glamour kids of the school. So it’s very important.”
Lumsden said the success of the program is not surprising to her.
“I am not surprised with how well it has been received,” she said. “People are really supportive of it, and there is all this research on it now that shows how animals have such a positive impact. I think people are much more open to it now, because of that.
Salvail said the program is available to the students for as long as they want to be a part of it. Some have been in the program since its inception, while others have moved on.
“I actually had one little boy who said he didn’t want to be in the program anymore because he felt he was missing out too much, on other things in the school. For me, that was a big success, because he was originally in the program because he couldn’t focus. To think he didn’t need us anymore, and that he was choosing the classroom instead of the dogs, it was like, wow.
“So clearly it does have an effect on these kids. I am not about to pull the kids out of the program unless they ask to. If we get too many kids, we will deal with it.”
From the dog training perspective, the Taking the Lead Program aims to teach children about animal welfare, the proper care and treatment of animals and volunteer work in our community. With those goals in mind, the students themselves are facilitating the Paw Prints fundraiser.
The grand prize is a complete pet dental package, donated by Van Isle Veterinary Hospital. Second prize is a room renovation package from MDO Painting and Greenspace Renovations and third prize is a fishing charter. Fourth prize is a doggy gift basket, including a photo shoot, boarding and dog training at K9 Kind. Proceeds from the fundraiser will be donated to a special fund at the Van Isle Veterinary Clinic, used to help spay and neuter the pets of families who could otherwise not afford to do so.
Tickets for the raffle (two for $5, five for $10) are selling until Nov. 30 and are available online at www.k9kind.ca ,at the office of école Au-cœur-de-l’île and at Van Isle Veterinary Clinic.
The winners will be announced Dec. 1.