BM Dog Therapy

Rocky is the perfect judgment-free, captive audience for students looking for extra reading practice.

Dogs have successfully earned the moniker “Man’s Best Friend,” but some dogs are turning out to be an educator’s best friend, as well. Two dogs in Bucks County, Bailey and Rocky, are blazing trails working as therapy dogs in the Bensalem Township School District.

For the past nine years, Bailey, a schnoodle — a cross between a schnauzer and poodle — has been working with students at Robert K. Shafer Middle School. The friendly and well-trained pooch has taken on a number of roles during his years at the school, but now primarily works with special needs students who are in the classroom of Stephanie Lombardo.

“It is a privilege to have him in the classroom,” Lombardo says.

Lombardo’s students are in seventh grade, but many of them have the second-grade reading abilities. In addition to slower learning skills some of the students have emotional issues, as well. Before Bailey, outbursts were commonplace, but the presence of Bailey in the classroom has helped the students remain calmer.

Before tests, which can often trigger anxiety attacks in some of the students, Lombardo walks Bailey around the classroom and lets each student pet him for good luck.

“You can see the kids become empowered through the sensory interaction with him,” Lombardo says. “It really helps them in terms of relieving their anxiety.”

But the benefit of having Bailey in the classroom goes beyond the good luck pet. Time with Bailey has become an incentive for the students, particularly in reading education. Students are able to spend time with Bailey each week and read to the dog one-on-one. Lombardo says it’s something the students rise up to compete for. While the students might have difficulty reading in front of her or their peers, Bailey is a non-judgmental listener.

“It’s been really helpful to have the kids read to him in his reading corner,” Lombardo says. “Many of the kids have improved and moved their reading up a grade level since working with him. He helps the students feel more encouraged to read and helps shape a more positive reading experience for them.”

Another key area where Bailey has proven to be an asset is to help the students learn some real-world skills. Students learn transitioning skills for when their middle and high school years have ended. Each week students must apply for jobs to help with Bailey’s care. Lombardo says the students fill out applications that are designed to look like job applications — something that will give them a familiar confidence when they must apply for work.

Across the district at Cecelia Snyder Middle School, Rocky the chocolate Labrador retriever also provides therapeutic services to students. While Bailey primarily works with special needs students, Rocky works with students across the school. As the constant companion of Principal Tom Evert, Rocky walks the school halls with him and gets to spend time with a broad range of students.

“He just brings joy to everyone,” Evert says of the 4-year-old dog.

Evert shared a number of stories about how Rocky’s interactions with students are highly positive experiences. For example, one student with special needs who was dropped off at school by her parents refused to get out of the car. That is, until Evert had Rocky waiting at the drop-off area each morning. Her desire to be with Rocky proved to be the trick, and each morning the girl would jump out of the car and go meet Rocky, who would then walk with her into the school. Evert says the connection she had with Rocky was so strong that her parents ended up getting her a dog of her own.

That student isn’t the only one Rocky greets in the mornings. Now the dog is almost always on bus duty, meaning he’s there to cheerfully greet the students each morning as they arrive for the day.

Students at Snyder vie to earn time with Rocky. Those who are selected get to exercise the dog and play catch with him on the football field.

In the four years Rocky has served as a therapy dog at Snyder, he’s helped bring the school together, Evert says. The dog creates a strong sense of community.

“There’s commonality with building relationships around the dog,” Evert says. “A dog is just unique, he just melts people’s hearts. People tend to see the school as more of a family environment now due to the fact Rocky is here, which is important.”

This article was originally published in Community Health magazine for Bucks and Montgomery Counties.