Gowanda talks benefits of school therapy dog

Bush Elementary School in Jamestown has previously utilized a German shepherd therapy service dog to alleviate anxiety of students. Members of the Gowanda Central School Board discussed the benefits of bringing in a therapy dog to the school.

GOWANDA — The benefits of utilizing a therapy dog at Gowanda Central School was discussed by school board members at a recent meeting.

The proposal was led by Gowanda Elementary School’s social worker, Carmen Muscarella, and school resource officer, Ben Shields.

“This is something that’s really exciting,” Muscarella said. “I have thought about this and researched this for probably a good eight years. Over the last couple years I’ve been contemplating it.”

The benefits for having a therapy dog at school were outlined in the initial part of the presentation, which include improved academics, increased attendance rates, improved overall school climate, and increased motivation and incentive. Muscarella elaborated that having a dog in a school can also teach empathy to students, which can be difficult to teach to students otherwise.

“For me being an animal lover, it’s easy for me to tell you it’s beneficial,” Muscarella said. “It reduces stress, anxiety and improves self esteem.”

“Having a dog to assist in that process would be fantastic,” Muscarella continued. “They can see that a dog makes mistakes and they can forgive the dog so it helps them understand they can be forgiven for their mistakes as well.”

The list of social benefits for having a therapy dog in school continued, including dogs being very beneficial for students who have autism.

According to the 2016 report from the CDC, one in 54 children are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and there are several students at Gowanda who have been diagnosed with Autism. As Muscarella outlined, children with Autism can struggle with maintaining eye contact, engaging in conversation, and many other things. Having a dog can help these students as well.

“These animals can really assist them with conversation, it’s safer for these children to make eye contact with a dog and have a conversation with a dog. Having a therapy dog in a session helps children with autism exhibit positive behavior,” said Muscarella.

Possibly the largest benefits of having a dog in a school though is therapy dogs for mental health and emotional benefits. A dog can quickly de-escalate a situation where a student is in crisis, which is something that Shields has experience in.

“Being the SRO at Pioneer for a little over two years, they’ve got several dogs over there,” Shields said. “I worked primarily at the middle school and they have three golden retrievers just in the middle school alone. They weren’t there everyday but if there was a student in crisis, they worked as a team with their availability. There was always a dog availability. I’ve seen a 13 year old kid having a meltdown and you introduce a dog to that kid in that moment of crisis and you can physically see the stress drain from the situation. To have this here in Gowanda is a huge benefit, it’s very forward thinking and very positive.”

Muscarella went on to outline possible concerns of having a dog in the school, which can range from the training process, to allergies or fears, sanitation concerns, the temperament of the dog itself, and insurance concerns. Muscarella quelled a lot of these concerns in her presentation, the biggest of which being the concerns of cost and insurance.

“Many districts have policies about using therapy dogs, some do not. My biggest concern is anyone bringing their dog in saying it’s a therapy dog,” Muscarella said, who also added that she would be paying for the cost and training of the dog.

Shields and Muscarella have been discussing the proposal for the last handful of years, and they’re both glad to see it finally come to fruition and while the proposal was not voted on Wednesday night but was generally well received by members of the board.


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