Reducing anxiety, raising grades: therapy dogs ‘bring a calm’ to KC-area schools

On her way to help one of her Olathe students in crisis last spring, social worker Jennifer Slaven swung by and picked up a friend’s therapy dog.

When the borrowed dog walked into the room, the tone changed as the student saw the animal and, finally, began to calm down, said Slaven, a member of the Olathe Public Schools’ crisis management team.

It was a pivotal moment. Slaven decided, then and there, that her schools needed a therapy dog.

“Just the difference it makes when you walk in with the dog is amazing,” said Slaven, who works at Santa Fe Middle and Washington Elementary schools. “They bring a calm to the room. You’ll see kids facing a tragedy or a crisis or a trauma and all of a sudden they take a deep breath.”

From there her mission took off. With permission from her middle school principal, Slaven joined the growing trend of Kansas City area school educators who are bringing therapy animals into schools.

By June she raised $20,000 through the Olathe Public Schools Foundation to adopt and train a therapy dog. Now, she is spending the summer training her newly adopted mutt, Sampson, so he can be ready to begin work with students in the fall.

Once Sampson is in the school, Slaven anticipates keeping him with her three to four days a week, depending on his stamina for demanding job.

“We’ll have to just kind of follow his lead on building his tolerance for that,” Slaven said. “It’ll be a work in progress I’m sure.”

Sampson will serve three main roles as a therapy dog. He will work with students in Santa Fe Middle’s program for emotionally traumatized students, one of two such programs in the district. He will accompany Slaven on trips to other buildings as part of the crisis management team. And he will also just be a dog, a happy, non-judgmental presence for all students at Santa Fe Middle and Washington Elementary.

“Kids respond to animals, they’re excited about animals and they want to interact with them,” Slaven said. “I hope that it would be therapeutic for those that need that piece as well.”

The Olathe school district has been increasing its focus on mental health because the numbers of students diagnosed with mental disorders is increasing, Slaven said.

“The stress that kids are feeling and the pressure they have has changed,” she said. “Add in economic factors and poor home situations and the need for it is just on the rise.”

Olathe isn’t the only school district using pets to address this problem. For example, the North Kansas City School District works with Mo-Kan Pet Partners to bring Sophie the golden retriever and her owner, Linda Satter, to Oak Park High School every week.

Thomas Stump and Kelsey Boucher, juniors at Oak Park High School, are regulars at Sophie’s Tuesday sessions. Stump says it gives him the boost he needs to get through the week. Boucher is convinced her grades are higher because Sophie reduced her test anxiety.

Kids today have more stress than previous generations, Stump and Boucher agree.

“I have anxiety and I think it’s just cause of the amount of stuff that we have to do,” Boucher said.

It’s out of concern for her students that Oak Park High School counselor Kathie Mahan helps organize Sophie’s visits to the school’s library.

“It seems to be epidemic, anxiety and depression,” Mahan said. “I’m not sure the answer to it but it just seems to be so prevalent and it’s kind of frightening to me as a counselor. I’ve seen more and more kids not be able to come into school so we have to get creative as educators.”

Sophie’s owner is a retired social worker in the North Kansas City School District. Satter started bringing her dog to school immediately after she retired two years ago because she said she missed her students and believes in the importance of having animals in our lives.

“I notice how people relax,” Satter said. “They’ll talk about it it’s just like ‘I needed this today.’ ”

Mahan said she’s seen immediate impact from Sophie and how animals make a huge difference for students.

Mo-Kan Pet Partners visits hospitals and nursing homes throughout the area and is expanding its school programs.

Julie Goodman has been volunteering with Mo-Kan for 10 years. She and her poodle, Jordon, regularly visit hospitals and schools. Jordon adapts to her setting: She is bubbly in schools and is often calmer at hospitals. But the impact on those she interacts with is the same.

“I think there’s something kind of magic about touching a soft coat and looking into eyes that you can kind of see their soul,” Goodman said.