Puppy Love

Therapy Dog program continues to lend a helping hand to students
Happy Halloween. History teacher John Saboe’s dog, McKinley, sits and smiles as she receives rubs from students throughout the library.
Happy Halloween. History teacher John Saboe’s dog, McKinley, sits and smiles as she receives rubs from students throughout the library.
Jaidyn Palladini

During the spring of last school year, PawZone and the Alliance of Therapy Dogs had their first visit as part of a pilot program.  

Fast forward to the new school year, the therapy dogs began coming into the library once a month starting in September. 

“The high school’s social worker and attendance coordinator, Mrs. Sauka contacted Mrs. Lucas in the library to see if she could host the therapy dogs in the library during lunch periods,” tester/observer for ATD and PawZone member Karen Morder said. “After our initial visit, Mrs. Lucas knew she made the correct decision; the feedback was amazing. The students were all smiles, interacting with each other and the dogs. The energy in the library was positive and upbeat.”

According to Morder, being with a therapy dog gives the students a break from their busy school day, and a chance to unwind, relax and interact with each other. 

“I see a lot of smiles on their faces, and the students are so excited to see the dogs. They even remember their names,” Morder said. “The students seem to relax and enjoy spending time with the dogs, petting them, giving them belly rubs and just telling stories about their dogs. I hear laughter and witness kindness between the students.”

The Alliance of Therapy Dogs began in 1990 while PawZone started in 2021. 

“The Alliance of Therapy Dogs program started 33 years ago with 500 members. As of 2023, we now have approximately 17,000 members nationwide,” Morder said. “Our PawZone Therapy Dog group was started to honor our fellow therapy dog member Lisa Leipold who passed away that same year.”

The program is designed to help the students relieve anxiety and develop interpersonal and positive connections within the school setting.

“We hope to continue visiting the school, going into classrooms as well as the library providing the students and staff opportunities during the school day to relax and reset their minds through direct interactions with our therapy dogs,” Morder said. 

The number of students visiting the therapy dogs has increased with each visit. 

“Our PawZone Therapy Dogs group was recently interviewed by both WTAJ, WJAC and the Altoona Mirror and has helped to promote, I believe, having therapy dogs in our schools,” Morder said. “Word of mouth in the school, articles in the Mountain Echo, a story on the school TV and yearbook participation has increased awareness.”

PawZone is currently scheduled to be in school twice per month through the end of February, currently, with plans to finish out the school year in May.

“I’ve heard different staff members state that it would be nice to have the therapy dogs visit during an Inservice day, and perhaps that may be a possibility in the future,” Morder said. “Other than visiting the schools, we visit Senior Centers, Nursing homes, the Hollidaysburg Veterans Home, Penn State Altoona, Penn Highlands Community College, and most recently we participated in two parades, the Altoona Veterans Day parade and a parade at the Homewood Estates Halloween parade. 

— Karen Morder

Morder believes that therapy dogs provide benefits to students while in school.

“The school closures during COVID-19 did an injustice to our students. They got used to being at home and having worked in an elementary school before and after COVID-19. I, along with other staff members, noticed how difficult it was for the students to return to school,” Morder said. “I think having therapy dogs in the school, on a regular basis or even in the classroom, will be an incentive for students to come to school. The dogs provide an outlet for the students, they don’t judge, the dogs are great listeners and are always happy to see the students.”

Librarian Tanya Lucas worked with PawZone member Karen Morder to schedule the dogs every two weeks for our students this fall. 

“I thought that sounded fun, so the library hosted the dogs. We had so many kids who wanted to come in and pet the dogs that I had to stand at the door and allow kids in only as other students left. We were so crowded,” Lucas said. “That’s when I knew we needed to have the dogs back. We piloted the program by inviting teachers and their classes to come and visit the dogs in the library. News that we had dogs in the library traveled fast, and I had classes just showing up to visit with the dogs. That’s when I knew the program needed to be expanded. We are now taking the dogs on tour. Teachers used a Google Form to sign up for classroom visits with the dogs. Currently, that is what we are doing. The dogs are also making appearances in other schools in our district. At our elementary schools, the dogs are listening to our students reading them books. In addition, Mr. Saboe and Mrs. Vanish have had their dogs tested and the dogs have qualified as therapy dogs. I believe the District is in the process of creating a policy so that teachers who have a certified therapy dog can bring the dogs with them to school.”

According to Lucas, therapy dogs can also help to create a more positive and supportive school environment.

“They can help to reduce bullying and aggression, and they can promote a sense of community and belonging among students,” Lucas said. “Overall, therapy dogs can have a significant positive impact on a student’s physical, mental and emotional well-being. They can also help to improve students’ academic performance and create a more positive school environment.”

Team member Wanda Gummo is also part of the therapy dog program.

“My golden retriever, Cooper, was just certified as a therapy dog in late September,” Gummo said. “He has been to several schools, a library, nursing homes, a senior center and a hair salon. His job is to bring comfort to anyone who needs his calming nature.”

The program allows students to talk about their pets to some of the members from PawZone. 

“The students seem to love the therapy dogs coming in,” Gummo said. “They sit on the floor with him and love petting him. It also gives me an opportunity to talk to students about things happening with their pets.”

According to Gummo, it is a great program for students as well as staff. 

“It seems to help bring smiles to people with special needs and a calming sense,” Gummo said. “We often hear ‘this is the best day ever’ from students and staff.”

Gummo is best known as Cooper’s “mom.” 

“We work as a team with the other teams to share our dogs and hopefully bring joy and peace to someone at each visit,” Gummo said. 

Dog trainer Larry Wilson lends a hand in the program alongside the other team members. 

“I help by attending as many visitations as possible,” Wilson said. 

Wilson’s role is to help students and better the program when the therapy dogs are visited in the library. 

“I provided a setting of calm and understanding for the students,” Wilson said. 

To improve the visits, Wilson believes more events should be planned for students. 

Lots of love. Therapy dog, Olive, receives lots up rubs from students visiting in the library. (Jaidyn Palladini)

“By encouraging more handlers to attend more visitations and a wider variety of areas, I believe more students will be interested to visit,” Wilson said. 

English teacher Jamie Coleman believes taking her students down to see the dogs allows students to decompress. 

“I love it,” Coleman said. “I think that it is a wonderful experience not just for us, but for the kids as well. It gives them an opportunity to pet some really cute dogs, have some conversations with people that they might not normally converse with and learn some things about the dogs that are there.”

Smiles are brought to faces when visiting the dogs.

“I think it is worth every amount of time that we can spend there,” Coleman said. 

According to Coleman, one change needs to be made to the program. 

“I want more dogs,” Coleman said. “All the dogs. Just bring them all. I think with more dogs being brought in will be a good benefit to the program.”

Senior Natalie Boreman gets to take a break throughout the day when the dogs are brought into the school. 

“I think it makes us less stressed and the day to calm down and not stress about our classes,” Boreman said. 

According to Boreman, sitting down with the pets is soothing to her in particular. 

“I think that it’s really soothing to sit there and connect with animals and people who bring them in more,” Boreman said.

The benefits of having a therapy dog in the classroom according to Karen Morder include:
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