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This fall has flown by! I am in shock that November is here, and two months of school have already passed.

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She hates wearing her cone. ūüė¶

One thing that has been occupying my mind this fall is the health of my therapy dog, Ginger. She is almost ten years old, which for her breed is a senior dog. As you dog lovers know, we never expect our pets to get old, and are surprised when they do! In my mind, she is still the 7-week-old puppy I brought home from the shelter in 2007.

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2007, a few days after I brought her home.

Since I brought her home, she has certified and recertified 5 times as a therapy dog with Pet Partners¬†(the certification is renewed every 2 years). We have taken buses, trains, and even airplanes together, and she has interacted with hundreds of students and teachers along the way. Right now she is being treated for¬†some autoimmune¬†issues, and hasn’t been able to come to school since June.

This blog post is dedicated to her recovery, cataloging some of the things I miss about working with a therapy dog.

  • Instant rapport

Having a therapy animal creates an “aura of safety” (my term) in the therapy room. Students who are shy or unsure are often much more outgoing and confident when Ginger is with me, and it becomes much easier¬†to establish rapport and trust.¬†I need students to trust me, in order for them to feel confident to try new, hard things and make progress on their goals. I need their parents to trust me, so they will tell me important info about how things are going at home, and also be willing to put in the work to support their students.

I also need teachers to trust me with their students, who they care about and want the best for. Teachers have a wealth of knowledge about their students, and it is so valuable to me when we are able to establish enough of a connection so they can share it. When Ginger is in my office, teachers, students, and their parents are much more likely to come by and chat. It is during those informal chats that I gain the most insight into student needs, parent priorities, and teacher observations. Having a therapy dog facilitates these interactions in a natural way, with so much ease and grace. It is wonderful to experience.

I have been amazed over the past 10 years how quickly rapport can be established when I have Ginger with me. People trust her, so they trust me. (And I am a trustworthy person, I promise!). Working in a new school this year, I very much miss her ability to connect. I can do it without her, but it takes much longer, and is much more work.

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School photo from 2012. How could you not trust this face?

  • Motivation

Students LOVE THIS DOG. They want to come to therapy to see the dog. Their friends want to come to therapy to meet the dog. They work hard in therapy sessions to earn a treat to give to Ginger at the end of the session. Students bring their friends to my office after school, introducing Ginger to their friends, and their friends to Ginger. Older students, who are much too cool for candy, stickers, or high-5s, will still come to get pets and licks from a furry friend.

We’ve all had students who were difficult to motivate. Stickers, candy, and prize boxes have all failed me at one time or another, but a fuzzy puppy has never failed to engage and motivate my hard-to-reach students.

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2015, when we visited a medically fragile classroom every week. This student LOVED petting Ginger, and would use her switch to ask for Ginger.

  • Increase social interaction

This is a big one. Therapy animals have been shown to provide positive social benefits to children with Autism. I have had minimally verbal students say multiple words together as they were petting Ginger, talking to Ginger, or talking about Ginger. Even some of my unpredictable students, who I would worry about using gentle hands when petting, seemed to intuitively understand how to be gentle with Ginger. They would get quiet, kneel/sit down, and sometimes just smoosh their faces into Ginger’s neck or chest. Her moments with students who have autism have been some of the sweetest I have ever seen.

Even for students (and teachers, and ME) who do not have autism, having a therapy animal can provide a topic for conversation, and a level of comfort which fosters more social interaction than would occur otherwise. During Ginger’s training I took her out into the community to socialize and desensitize her to novel experiences. I was always amazed by how many strangers would start conversations with us when we were out as a team. We had conversations with everyone! This happens in the community, and it happens in my school. I miss those opportunities for interaction that happened so naturally when Ginger was coming to school with me.

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Ginger and me, at a university recruiting event in 2013. She was the star attraction at our booth, and facilitated many great connections.

  • Deescalation, sensory breaks, and stress reduction

I cannot count how many times Ginger has helped me get through a marathon testing session with a student who had difficulty focusing. Our routine was simple: 5-10 minutes testing, 2 minutes of “dog time.” I could get through the most grueling standardized tests, with students who had the most difficult time with testing, so long as I had a dog to play with during the breaks. It served as a “brain break” from concentrating, a sensory break for students who needed it, and a fun respite from the hard work of testing. Even the most wiggly preschooler has been able to sit for a few minutes, with the promise of doggie time after 5 more questions.

I have also used Ginger with students who were easily frustrated (mostly students who had autism), to decrease melt-downs as we worked on difficult skills. One student in particular needed Ginger to be sitting on his feet, and he could handle anything. Without her he might be under the table refusing to work, but with HER under the table, we could work for an entire session without interruption. I would see him reaching down towards her as the tasks got harder, using a few pets to calm himself down so he wouldn’t lose it.

And for my own stress reduction, during hard days or when I was working under a deadline, I have used Ginger more times than I can count. I have crawled under my own desk to get a hug and a kiss when I needed it, to keep myself sane and stable.

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My sister, snuggling with Ginger over winter break last year.

So here’s to a quick recovery, and thankfulness¬†for wonderful veterinarians who provide the best care possible, and to every old dog who has spent their life giving love and snuggles.

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