A fuzzy face of encouragement
Students at Sparta Area School District will see a new, friendly and fuzzy face around this school year. Beans, the district’s new therapy dog, has begun his work helping struggling readers alongside School Psychologist Micah Anderson.
When Anderson himself was in high school, one of the school counselors had a therapy dog. He felt bringing a therapy dog into the schools could be a good thing for students and always thought it would have a positive impact.
While Anderson was in grad school, he wrote his master’s thesis on the use of therapy dogs in schools and more specifically through the lens of reading therapy dogs.
“The research that supports that is very positive,” he explained, adding he decided that when he did get into the field, he would like to implement a therapy dog.
Last July, Anderson picked out Beans from a litter of goldendoodle puppies because the breed sheds very little and its one of the best hypoallergenic dogs. “He’s got a really good temperament and all the things therapy dogs need,” he said.
Anderson started looking into training programs in the area, a lot of which were really expensive. He then began researching different grant options that might support the cost of training Beans.
He came across Charlotte’s Litter Grant Program, which is a memorial grant supported by Newtown Kindness, founded in honor of Charlotte Helen Bacon. Bacon was an avid dog lover who lost her life on December 14, 2002 in Sandy Hook, CT.
The organization supports therapy dog programs in educational and societal settings by providing resources to parents and educators.
Anderson applied for the grant on behalf of the school district and was awarded the grant. The funds paid for the majority of Beans’ training; a Walmart Community Grant paid for the remainder.
Beans attended behavioral training in La Crosse at Fun For Pets, where they employ certified trainers. He was there for one month and over the summer Anderson took over training himself.
He took Beans to the humane society where he could interact with other dogs; Anderson also took him out in public to parks where he could interact with kids and older humans.
“Even as a small puppy he was very laid back,” Anderson said. “He’s always been good around little kids and he’s always done very well.”
A lot of the research shows that most struggling readers are aware they are struggling and for them they find it embarrassing, which prevents them from wanting to seek help from adults. Beans’ job is to sit with the students while they read to him.
“Reading to the dog is easier for them because it’s a friendly, non-judgmental face and he doesn’t give any feedback to the students other than being happy and friendly next to them,” Anderson said. “Then there are all sorts of ancillary benefits to having a dog around.”
Anderson added that being in the presence of a dog will lower an individual’s heart rate, anxiety levels and blood pressure. He added that research has shown using a therapy dog in the classroom decreases problematic behaviors and increases student attendance and motivation.
Director of Pupil Services Amber Kulig said Beans lights up a room everywhere he goes. “Just watching adults faces light up is awesome and you can feel everybody’s stress levels come down a little bit,” she said.
“We have some students that struggle with behavioral challenges and we can use Beans to help them process,” Kulig added. “Instead of talking to an adult, they can talk to a dog and it’s easier for them to open up on the struggles they’re having.”
Beans has been introduced to all of the students he could potentially be working with and has already been meeting with individual students.
“Everyone now knows him and comes up to him and greets him everyday,” Anderson said. “Staff, students and everyone in the building are always happy to see him and a lot of people say it makes them feel better.”