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Dewey Teaches Students to Heal: Therapy Dog Trainee a Hit at Hanover High

  • Dewey, a four-month-old Labradoodle, is in training to become a therapy dog at Hanover High School where owner and teacher Pam Miller has started a dog club, Tuesday, April 29, 2014.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Dewey, a four-month-old Labradoodle, is in training to become a therapy dog at Hanover High School where owner and teacher Pam Miller has started a dog club, Tuesday, April 29, 2014.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Hanover High School senior Marina Barry gets a lick from Dewey the Labradoodle while teacher Cynthia Sanschagrin works on a schedule of the dog's classroom visits with other members of the dog club at Hanover High, Tuesday, April 29, 2014. The four-month-old puppy is the subject of the club's efforts to integrate a therapy dog into the school. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Hanover High School senior Marina Barry gets a lick from Dewey the Labradoodle while teacher Cynthia Sanschagrin works on a schedule of the dog's classroom visits with other members of the dog club at Hanover High, Tuesday, April 29, 2014. The four-month-old puppy is the subject of the club's efforts to integrate a therapy dog into the school.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Dewey takes up his spot on the floor of Hanover High Psychologist Tom Gamble's office Tuesday, April 29, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Dewey takes up his spot on the floor of Hanover High Psychologist Tom Gamble's office Tuesday, April 29, 2014.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Hanover High School teacher Pam Miller, second from left, looks at the website set up by Kiely Smiga-McManus, middle, to organize the activities of Dewey the Labradoodle during the Hanover High Dog Club Tuesday, April 29, 2014. Sonthaya Lacy, right, and Sylvia Penfield, left, look on.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Hanover High School teacher Pam Miller, second from left, looks at the website set up by Kiely Smiga-McManus, middle, to organize the activities of Dewey the Labradoodle during the Hanover High Dog Club Tuesday, April 29, 2014. Sonthaya Lacy, right, and Sylvia Penfield, left, look on.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Dewey, a four-month-old Labradoodle, is in training to become a therapy dog at Hanover High School where owner and teacher Pam Miller has started a dog club, Tuesday, April 29, 2014.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Hanover High School senior Marina Barry gets a lick from Dewey the Labradoodle while teacher Cynthia Sanschagrin works on a schedule of the dog's classroom visits with other members of the dog club at Hanover High, Tuesday, April 29, 2014. The four-month-old puppy is the subject of the club's efforts to integrate a therapy dog into the school. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Dewey takes up his spot on the floor of Hanover High Psychologist Tom Gamble's office Tuesday, April 29, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Hanover High School teacher Pam Miller, second from left, looks at the website set up by Kiely Smiga-McManus, middle, to organize the activities of Dewey the Labradoodle during the Hanover High Dog Club Tuesday, April 29, 2014. Sonthaya Lacy, right, and Sylvia Penfield, left, look on.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

Hanover — There’s a new guy on campus, and he’s pretty popular.

Dewey, a chocolate-colored Labradoodle who turned 4 months old last week, is Hanover High School’s new therapy-dog-in-training. He’s quickly become a beloved campus figure since he started coming to school every day in late February.

“It’s really hard not to smile when you see him,” said senior Olivia McClelland, as Dewey lounged around nearby on a recent school day. “And it makes you happy when you’re walking down the hallway, to see all those smiles.”

Teachers, students and administrators insist that it’s not just that they like having an adorable pup around the hallways. Rather, they said, his impact is more significant: The dog counteracts both everyday anxieties and more serious crises, and he breaks down long-standing social barriers with a quick wag of his tail.

Even during his first day on campus, said English teacher Marie D’Amato, Dewey was a great equalizer, as everybody “was just in love with this dog.” Students from separate social cliques who had rarely interacted were suddenly bonding over Dewey.

“Any pretenses that any student had were just dropped,” D’Amato said. “There suddenly was no differentiation between any kind of social group or affect. … Students who weren’t frequent talkers would all of a sudden start raising their hands more (when Dewey was in class). It brought out so much positive energy. I haven’t seen anything like it.”

Students in the school’s Dog Club, including McClelland, have worked in the past to train and raise money for service dogs — which are distinct from therapy dogs in the nature of their work — for others. When breeders Chris and Mary Nauman of Contented Life Farm in Sharon donated Dewey to club leader and social studies teacher Pam Miller in February, club members finally had the chance to put some of those skills to use for the benefit of their peers.

Dogs have to meet a series of standards in order to be certified as a therapy dog, and they are working with Dewey to get him read to be certified.

Even before he’s certified, he’s making an impact, Miller said. “When you see the joy in the building, it’s palpable,” she said.

Dewey spends two days a week with school psychologist Tom Gamble, participating in individual counseling sessions and group therapy sessions. In the two months or so since Dewey’s been coming to school, Gamble said, the “preliminary” indications are positive, and that the dog has “exceeded our expectations.”

“(Dewey) seems to have an excellent basic temperament and is naturally drawn to greeting (and) interacting with people, including many he does not know,” Gamble said in an email.

“We had hoped the whole community would welcome and embrace him and that he would not just be associated with being the school psychologist’s dog, and indeed this has occurred as I have him only two days per week. I have been somewhat surprised by how supportive faculty and parents have been already.”

The rest of Dewey’s weekdays are spent in classrooms with students. Teachers, such as D’Amato, can book class time with Dewey — named for the Dewey decimal system, because teachers check him out like a library book — by using an online calendar created by the Dog Club students, who are also responsible for transporting him between classes and coordinating his care, making sure he gets taken outside during the day and cleaning up after him.

In classes, Dewey sits in the back of the room with food and a water bowl, sometimes getting up to sit by students he senses need help.

Principal Justin Campbell said the dog allows students a chance to feel young again “in the best possible sense.”

“They describe things as being different when he’s there, and it’s not like they’re all just petting the puppy,” he said.

Indeed, advocates for therapy dogs in schools say their benefits are not only social — such as building self-esteem and social skills, decreasing loneliness, encouraging positive social behaviors and teaching responsibility, among others — but also academic, such as improving attendance, stimulating the senses and motivating speech, learning and exercise. A school district in Palmyra, N.Y., employs five therapy dogs for its primary, intermediate and high schools.

Campbell said the school has considered that some students may be afraid of or allergic to dogs, and that the school would make accommodations in those cases.

Dewey may have been a little distracting at first, some said, but McClelland said he was “distracting in a good way,” and the novelty quickly wore off. Miller said the dog appears actually to increase students’ focus because they are motivated by Dewey.

What’s more, they said, he’s already helped in more serious situations with students who have been experiencing extreme anxieties or other mental or emotional crises. Those scenarios are priority for Dewey, and when he’s been pulled out of classes to assist in those situations, his effect has been extraordinary, both Miller and Campbell said.

After one such situation, Miller said, the school nurse told her, “If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it.”

There’s no effect on the school budget or cost to taxpayers, said Campbell, who is finishing his second year with the school, because the Dog Club hosts fundraisers for any Dewey-related expenses.

Psychologist David Chin, who has been bringing his dog, Plato, a black Labrador/golden retriever mix, to his practice and to schools for about a decade, said he can see why Dewey’s influence has been positive.

“Kids often feel safe and comfortable with animals,” Chin said, “especially those kids who have been traumatized, but even those that have, say, anxiety about reading or math or school work.”

That kind of calming presence works well with elementary students, many of whom Chin’s seen read aloud for the first time only because they were reading to Plato. The same is true at Plainfield Elementary School, where a teacher’s therapy dog, Niko the husky, has been visiting twice a week for about four years, said Principal Ellen Langsner.

“Students’ heart rates drop when they’re petting an animal so that they read more fluently and they have less anxiety and they can make more progress in their reading,” said Langsner, who called Niko “very much part of the culture” of the school. She agreed with the assessment that, after the novelty wears off, therapy dogs aren’t distracting to students. Rather, they bring out positive traits.

Chin said a dog’s presence can the same effect at the high school level, where an escape from adolescent pressures can do wonders.

“The dog isn’t going to judge you, and I suspect at Hanover High that there’s high-stakes judging all the time,” Chin said.

“It’s called grades and it’s called being an adolescent and it’s called being whatever shape or size or color that you are.

“Adolescents are very judgmental. … They’re comparing themselves against everyone,” he said. “Adolescents are their own worst judges when it comes right down to it. To have a real sentient being … accept you totally, regardless of who you are, boy, I tell you, what a relief, when you think about it.”

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.

CORRECTION

Raymond Chin is a psychologist in Hanover. An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect first name.