Students at Little River Junior/Senior High School have a new classroom helper — Bubba. He likes to sit on students’ laps, lick their hands and take naps between class periods.
Of course, Bubba is a therapy dog. The 9-year-old double dapple Daschund has worked for more than seven years alongside his handler Stacey Scritchfield, who teaches special education. Bubba has recently met all requirements to join the Little River schools.
“When Bubba was little, I took him to school where I taught then and showed him around. The principal asked me if I could bring him every day, so I started taking him to school,” Scritchfield said. “I had a variety of students with disabilities in my room and we noticed that a young man who had some physical issues would hold Bubba and the physical issues would calm down. We started making observations and noticed that Bubba reacted to other kids in a variety of ways that helped them with their disabilities.”
Scritchfield’s son, who also works in special education, suggested using Bubba as a therapy dog after he saw success with a rescued black labrador in his classroom.
Therapy dogs volunteer with their owners around the world to support humans in a variety of settings — schools, hospitals or even disaster areas.
Animal-assisted therapies can include alleviating stress or encouraging confidence when children practice reading to dogs. Therapy dogs are chosen for their temperament, rather than breed.
“Bubba is a very laid back dog, not like most daschunds,” Scritchfield said. “He is pretty calm most of the time and within the classroom, even from day one. It was like he knew what he was supposed to do and did it.”
Keep in mind, therapy dogs are not service dogs, as service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks for their owners and have special access privileges in public places. Instead, therapy dogs are chosen for their calm temperaments and act as good listeners.
So far, Scritchfield is seeing success with Bubba in the special services classroom.
“Within the school, often times kids need to release stressors, anxieties, or fears and may not feel like they can tell an adult, but they will tell a dog,” Scritchfield said. “Bubba has also detected some illnesses with my students earlier than we’ve seen symptoms. He refuses to leave the student with something going on, and he will come to me and try to get my attention and show me the student. After the situation is over, Bubba has to check on them — he may sit beside them for awhile until he has assured himself everything is fine.”
A study performed by the University of Central Florida found that students with a therapy dog demonstrated an increase in reading skills, classroom participation and positive outlook on schoolwork.
In part of the study, researchers compared scores of students working with therapy dogs and students working individually with teachers and found that working with a therapy dog was more effective, partly because of the learning environment.
Therapy dogs do not teach, but they provide a non-traditional, low-risk setting that allows students to work without worrying about failure or embarrassment.
“Dogs are smart and they are a companion,” Scritchfield said. “A dog can make you feel like you are not alone and they respond to you. You see their affection and feel like they understand.”
In the future, Scritchfield plans to keep Bubba’s presence in her classroom, while sharing about the benefits with other educators.
“I would like to see therapy dogs take off in schools all over. I believe students gain from the unconditional love and support gained from a dog,” Scritchfield said. “As a school system, it is our job to help our students in any way we can, so if having a dog helps students, then I hope to continue.”