Therapy dogs have long been used in hospital settings to provide comfort and support for patients battling physical maladies and struggling with mental health. In recent years, the animals have been introduced into school settings, including at Hauser Junior High in Riverside and Park Junior High in LaGrange Park.

Now officials in Brookfield-LaGrange Park School District 95 are mulling whether there’s a role therapy dogs can play at Brook Park Elementary School and S.E. Gross Middle School.

Cathy Cannon, District 95’s director of teaching and learning, certainly thinks so.

“The more research I do on this, the more momentum that it has gained in other school districts … there’s just so many benefits for how we can utilize this at Brook Park and at S.E. Gross,” Cannon said during a formal presentation on the subject at the May 11 school board meeting.

Cannon said she has gotten more of a ground-level look at what teachers and building administrators are seeing while she fills in for Brook Park K-2 Principal Kelly King, who is on maternity leave.

“Just thinking about post-COVID, we continue to deal with some challenges,” Cannon said. “Some things have changed, we think about things have changed, student behaviors have changed, but at the end of the day we have to continue to move forward and think of different ways that we can make changes to support those types of things in our schools.”

Superintendent Mark Kuzniewski, who indicated that in the past he wasn’t so sold on the concept of therapy dogs in schools, said if the school board was interested, he would dedicate staff time to exploring it further.

Kuzniewski echoed Cannon’s reference to new challenges school faculty face in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think in our conversations when we’ve talked about this, what it keeps coming back  to is a targeted group of students that have specific sets of needs as opposed [general visits] ,” Kuzniewski said. “I think our idea is to address some of these behaviors and unique needs that we are seeing that we’ve never seen before.”

While there’s still more study to be done in District 95 to identify exactly how therapy dogs would be introduced, school board members appeared to favor looking into the subject more as a way of addressing the specific issues Kuzniewski mentioned.

“I think it’s a good idea, especially for kids who are really struggling and every intervention is not working,” said board member Jessica Filbey. “You have to mix it up and try something new.”

Cannon said research she’s read demonstrates the importance of therapy dogs in addressing anxiety, serving as a communication bridge when communicating with a student has been a struggle and motivating students to attend school and practice skills in a classroom setting that they may normally resist, like reading aloud.

Dogs can also provide emotional support, Cannon said.

“They now have these dogs that go into schools that also help with some of the stress that might be happening, not just with the students, but with teachers,” Cannon said. 

The presence of therapy dogs can improve a school’s culture and climate, Cannon said, pointing to their use in Palos Heights School District 128, where former Riverside District 96 administrator Merryl Brownlow is now superintendent.

Brownlow told the Landmark that District 128 uses five to six therapy dogs that rotate in and out regularly. The dogs are in the building typically twice a week in a designated space where kids in grades four through eight who opt to participate in the program are scheduled for 15-minute visits.

“When you bring the dogs in, it’s fascinating to witness how they automatically affect the climate and culture,” Brownlow said. “We already had a positive culture, but this just enhanced it and brought so much joy to kids, teachers and families.”

Cannon said there are several companies that provide therapy dogs to schools, matching up needs of school districts with available animals, who along with their owners must be certified. According to Brownlow, District 128 uses a nonprofit company called Happy Tails Canine Therapy.

At the level District 95 would likely employ therapy dogs, their presence would come at no cost, Cannon said, since their owners need a certain number of training hours on an ongoing basis to remain certified.

School officials are hopeful that word District 95 is considering therapy dogs will end up drawing the attention of someone local whose dog is a certified therapy dog, much like the experience in Riverside District 96, where a therapy dog owner who was also the mother of a Hauser Junior High student offered her services.

That dog comes to the school before school starts and at dismissal several times a week.

“I think you start small,” said Cannon, maybe introducing them into the school a couple of times a week or in small group sessions, “to see how students are reacting, how is this going? If things are going really well then you build on it.”