A student’s best friend

Sometimes a dog can be the best therapy for a child

A number of years ago, I brought our black lab, Patrick, to school with me one day to try to ease the anxiety of one of our most complex students who was struggling in all areas of school.  

David was a charismatic young man who easily drew adults into his world, and he developed wonderful relationships with a wide range of them at the high school, from the “lunch ladies” to administrators, paraprofessionals, specialists and teachers.

David was not as successful forging relationships with peers, and he struggled in the academic and social-emotional realms. He was easily frustrated and quick to anger. I hoped Patrick could provide some emotional support to David.

Instantly, Patrick and David fell in love with each other. Patrick – while the love of our lives – was not the easiest guy to meet. He was big, in personality and size, and he was not the most gracious with first introductions. Patrick tended to leap on new people. He terrified delivery guys, and even one of his veterinarians. But Patrick’s exuberant energy was a perfect fit for David, and they became fast friends.

That first visit turned into weekly ones with the full support of the principal. David took Patrick for walks, and helped Patrick with his social skills when meeting new people.

Patrick helped David, too. He eased his anxiety around meeting peers, kept him calm during times of stress, and made his school day fun and more relaxed. David’s teachers and specialists were able to access him for teaching and could now help him make social-emotional progress.

Other students responded well to Patrick, and when he was in the building many of our most fragile students would come by my office for talks with me, and pats and hugs with Patrick.

A few years later – along with administrative changes – came changes in district procedures about allowing animals in the schools. While I respected these changes and stopped bringing Patrick to school, I had a hard time understanding how the “facility needs” outweighed the needs of our school community.

I read many articles about the positive effects of therapy dogs on nursing home residents, hospital patients, returning combat veterans and nonverbal children. I learned that Southern New Hampshire Montessori Academy added a therapy dog, Guardian, to its school programming in 2012. And I was thrilled when the University of New Hampshire added a therapy dog, Hamilton, to their health services in 2014.

Before David graduated, I brought Patrick around one last time for the two of them to have a visit.

A month prior, 15-year-old Patrick had been diagnosed with cancer, and we were told there was nothing that could be done for him. He didn’t look great the day I brought him to the school. He was no longer the strong, energetic guy that David had known.

But when David met Patrick outside the building that day, he grinned from ear to ear before running over to give his friend a huge hug. Then they sat quietly together, enjoying the sun and each other’s company for one last time.  

Elizabeth Feingold retired from Kearsarge Regional School District, where she worked for over 30 years as a special education teacher and coordinator at the elementary, middle and high school levels. She is now a consultant and advocate. She can be reached through www.seacservices.com or email seacsvcs@gmail.com.

More Learning Curve columns by Liz Feingold

Managing anxiety

Students can succeed with a treatment plan and support

The job of the advocate

To best serve the special education student, it takes time

Preparing for the annual IEP meeting

Strategies you can use to improve collaboration and reduce frustration

We are all in this together

Parents, teachers share the same hopes and fears

For some kids, the learning doesn’t stop

Parents should ask to review the impact of ESY services on their child
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