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Sonoma therapy dog sniffs out student anxiety (Published in the Sonoma-Index Tribune 11/28/16)

A feature I wrote about a middle school instructor who has employed the talents of her therapy dog in helping her students read.

“Not everyone’s had a lawyer, not everyone’s had an accountant, not everyone’s had a doctor,” said Bridget Paul, a language arts teacher at Altimira Middle School. “But everyone’s had a teacher.” However, not everyone has had a dog-teacher.

During the last school year, Paul has included a new teaching assistant in her curriculum to help students with reading: her soft-coated wheaten terrier, Maggie.

Maggie first visited Altimira after a sixth grade teacher passed away. “The sixth graders were really upset so the counselor and the principal said, ‘Bring your dog so they can pet her.’” It was there that she and other faculty discovered that Maggie had a sense for troubled kids, comforting the students who seemed most distressed. “The counselor said to me, ‘Your dog was made for this. You gotta get her certified.’”

That next summer, Maggie trained in a program called 4Paws where she learned how to interact with students. “Now she’s got her little uniform and her badge and she’s insured and I take her to school!”

Twice a week, Maggie comes into Paul’s sixth grade classroom and students read aloud to the dog. “Most kids that read aloud are mortified, embarrassed. They have no idea what they’re reading because they have had bad experiences reading aloud. And that’s the only experience you have when you start getting 25 to 30 people in a class. And if all you have are negative experiences, you tend not to read at all.”

Paul generally believes reading to the dog is superior to reading aloud in class. “Reading to the dog is a positive, safe environment that’s even meant to be comfortable and fun. Not a lot of parents have their kids read aloud at home. And they should. It’s the only way you can get better at something like reading,” said Paul.

Beside being another resource for learning, Maggie is also a character of comfort. “Sometimes she picks one student who she sits next to the whole day. Sometimes she moves around. I think she knows better than us who she is choosing.”

For many students, Paul is a rigorous teacher and Maggie offers needed clemency. “I’m very disciplined. I can see they get frustrated. But then sometimes they’re like, ‘Man, I don’t like you, but you have such a cool dog!’ She’s my sweeter half. I have little empathy for laziness and the students know it.”

Paul wants to enable Maggie’s skills in the classroom even further by giving her additional tools to help kids in need.

She explained that Maggie could be trained to sense certain emotions in students and go to them. “We do want to take it to the next level where she can smell out certain hormones and kids with levels of anxiety and go to them,” said Paul. “You release various hormones and they all have different smells. You teach the smell or you teach the body language and then you say, ‘Go to them.’ You pet a dog and your blood pressure goes down.”

Maggie’s presence has inspired a dog theme to Paul’s language arts class. As it is the first year Maggie has been in the classroom, Paul’s classes have studied topics such as how to approach dogs; following body language; dogs that have gone to war; service dogs and several others. “The great thing about English class is that you can read or learn about anything,” said Paul.

Daniel KongComment