Therapy Dogs Headed to Pinelands Regional

Mar 06, 2019
Photo by: Rick Mellerup Shay is eager to get to work.

The Pinelands Regional School District is going to the dogs – therapy dogs, to be exact.

At the Feb. 26 meeting of the Pinelands school board, teachers Michelle Maleski and Kelsey Barr explained a new program that they – along with High School Principal Shaun Banin, Junior High School Principal Eric Pschorr, Lucky Dog Pet Services owner Rebecca Weiss and High School Student Assistance Coordinator Joann Fella – have designed to bring therapy dogs to the Pinelands campus.

“Basically the mission, obviously, is to bring comfort and smiles to our school,” said Maleski. “A therapy dog is different than a service dog. A service dog actually services a person and whatever disability they may have. A therapy dog is more encompassing of the entire school district.

“Our biggest issue that we see, that we talk about with our School Based Youth Services, our counselors and whatnot, is student anxiety, student depression, being absent and an unhappy climate. Our solution would be our therapy dogs ... endorphins are important and smiling makes people happy, and dogs do that.”

Maleski said she and Barr have consulted numerous studies that show that therapy dogs can improve academic performance and that a lot of colleges bring therapy dogs onto campus at testing time to improve scores. She added that a therapy dog program would fit in nicely with New Jersey’s Standards of Social and Emotional Learning.

The therapy dogs, said Maleski, would be especially useful in special education settings, adaptive physical education classes (running with a dog is a joy; running to satisfy a physical education requirement may seem a chore) and School Based Youth Services. She added that the presence of therapy dogs could help make Pinelands a Choice District (offering classes in veterinary assistance, dog and animal training, grooming, handling, and responsible breeding and showing). And, upon questioning, Maleski said it would be possible to bring Pinelands therapy dogs to the area nursing homes as well.

The acronym for the program is TAILS – Therapy Animals In Learning Spaces. The team researching the idea of therapy dogs on campus didn’t have to go far for advice because several area districts including Manchester, Absecon, Lower Cape May, Rumson, and Southern Regional already have such programs.

Southern, said Maleski, has had its program, PAWS, in place for 15 years and it currently includes six dogs. But she added the TAILS team is in no hurry to build Pinelands’ program quickly.

“We want the program to be successful, so we want slow and steady,” she said. “We’re not going to have more animals than kids on campus.”

Indeed, people interested in having their dogs becoming therapy dogs at Pinelands must realize they and their pooch will have to go through a fairly rigorous process before the canine can become a member of the Pinelands team. Owners will have to provide certification from an accredited therapy dog organization and proof that all vaccinations are up to date. Their dogs will then have to be evaluated by Lucky Dog Pet Services to make sure their demeanor and temperament are up to snuff, meet the other dogs in the program to determine compatibility, be approved by the TAILS Team Board and the school board, undergo a trial visit with students, serve a provisional year and participate in certain various events each month to remain eligible to continue with the program.

No student will be allowed to interact with the therapy dogs until a parent or guardian gives written permission.

The only requirements the TAILS team need from the board, said Maleski, is for it to add the dogs to the district’s insurance and for it to develop a district policy.

The TAILS timeline calls for board approval in March, for the first couple of therapy dogs to be visiting the campus beginning in May and through the summer, for the full program to begin in September 2019 and to begin adding additional TAILS dogs in December.

Perhaps the TAILS team’s best exhibit was Shay, a 9-month-old lab mix rescue who is being trained as a therapy dog and who attended the meeting. Dogs, it turns out, not only produce smiles among school students but among school board and audience members as well.

 Rick Mellerup



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