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Editorial: Working Breed

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)

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)

If you thought that photograph on the front page of the Sunday Valley News this week was just another pretty face, we dare say you may have missed the point about Dewey, Hanover High School’s four-month-old “therapy dog.” Good looks aside, he comes to the high school to work — assisting students, teachers and staff who employ him in the classroom, the nurse’s office, for special education and for counseling. So far, the chocolate Labradoodle, despite his youth and inexperience, appears to be fulfilling his mission in ways both unexpected and instructive.

As staff writer Maggie Cassidy reported, Dewey’s presence in the school since February has proved beneficial for many reasons. The young pup, in training to become a certified therapy dog, has already demonstrated that he can calm nerves, help students focus on lessons, break down social barriers and shatter prejudices. Teachers have noticed that when Dewey’s around, students tend to treat each other equally, without the usual cliquishness for which high schoolers are well known. Thus, you could say the dog serves as nurse, psychologist, cheerleader, motivational speaker (who doesn’t need to speak), community organizer and civil rights worker all rolled into one furry body. Not exactly a dog’s life.

For all Dewey appears to accomplish, he labors at no cost to the taxpayers. He is the responsibility of the school’s Dog Club, which raises private funds to pay for his food and care. Students take turns walking him during the school day, and he goes home at night with social studies teacher Pam Miller, who had the bright idea to employ a dog for therapeutic purposes. His name, by the way, derives from the Dewey decimal system: He is checked out during the day, like a library book, for various activities.

The idea may seem frivolous at first, but animal-assisted therapy — cats and other creatures also have been used in such circumstances — is a growing field with promising results for schools. Many are familiar with therapy dogs in hospitals and nursing homes. They bring comfort and joy to patients and residents. In schools, dogs have been shown to relieve stress and help in the treatment of a variety of learning and psychological disorders. Dewey spends two days a week with Hanover High’s psychologist, Tom Gamble, who says the value of the dog’s presence in his office has exceeded expectations.

“Kids often feel safe and comfortable with animals, especially those kids who have been traumatized but even those that have, say, anxiety about reading or math or school work,” Hanover psychologist Raymond Chin told Cassidy. Children who are reluctant to read out loud or who struggle to do so will often muster the courage when a dog is nearby.

It’s interesting to note that Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, often brought his own dog, a Chow, to the office — first for his own benefit and later, after observing the dog’s effect during therapy sessions, for his patients. By the early 1960s, a few maverick psychologists were touting the positive influence dogs could have during therapy on emotionally disturbed children. There were plenty of skeptics back then, but today research has shown that dogs lower human blood pressure, slow the pulse and relax muscles, all of which calms the sympathetic nervous system. In short, dogs can be as effective as Valium, and a lot easier to take.

So, good for Hanover High’s Miller and others for doggedly pursuing the possibility of having a therapy dog on the premises. Ditto for Plainfield Elementary, where a Husky named Plato comes to school a couple of times a week. Given the evident rewards, Upper Valley schools that don’t already enlist kids’ best friend might consider the benefits of doing so.