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Pioneer School District's therapy dogs making a difference during the COVID-19 pandemic

The dogs are a source of comfort for students and teachers who are feeling stressed or anxious.

YORKSHIRE, N.Y. — If you happen to be at Pioneer Middle School on a Friday, you might notice a little extra excitement... and notice a couple of furry friends roaming the halls.

Students and teachers often refer to Friday as a "Louie Day," because that's when they get a visit from Louie, one of the school's therapy dogs.

Louie turns four in April and has been coming to the school for about two years now. 

He's a fluffy golden retriever who loves to steal kisses and hunt for treats. In fact, he knows which teachers keep snacks in their classroom and will often pull his mom into the room if she doesn't have a good handle on his leash.

Louie's (human) mom is school counselor Lynne Roth, and she says he plays an important role at school, especially this year during the pandemic.

"If a student is just having a meltdown, just cannot get it together, just having the dog and having them come in the office and being able to pet the dog helps. They will put their head on the child's lap, and it's just amazing how much it calms them down," said Roth.

The therapy dog program isn't new in the district. It has been around for about 13 years, and eight different dogs have visited. But this year — with the extra stress and anxiety some students and teachers are feeling — the dogs are playing an extra special part during the school day.

"There's a lot of research that shows that dogs reduce stress, anxiety, blood pressure," said school psychologist Pat Cooney.

Cooney has the district's original therapy dog, Lucy, but that dog is ready to retire. Nine-month-old Brinley is training to take her place.

There's also Jasper, who belongs to the school's eighth grade Spanish teacher.

Credit: Pioneer Middle School
Jasper

The dogs are also used as an incentive for students with attendance or behavioral problems who show signs of improvement.

"We have children who struggle to get out of bed in the morning, so we ask them to be in charge of daily living activities with the dog. Feeding them, brushing them and getting their water ready," said Cooney.

The added responsibilities get the kids excited to come to class and give them an added sense of purpose.

The dogs are also used as part of a reading program. The dogs help to calm kids who struggle with reading out loud in front of their classmates.

Credit: Pioneer Middle School

"If a kid stutters a little bit or has some difficulty pronouncing a word, Brinley and Louie and Lucy do not care. They give comfort," said Cooney. "Kids who struggle reading in front of their peers in class are able to come and read to the dogs. We took some data. It showed that each kid who comes down and reads to a dog, it increases their fluency."

Overall, the dogs just make the students and teachers smile, especially with their school photos and pictures on school spirit days.