Ohio therapy dog helps calm classroom jitters
NEWARK, Ohio (AP) — As the seventh-grade class at St. Francis de Sales shuffled into the computer lab and took seats on a recent Monday morning, teacher Annie Robrecht walked down the rows with her furry friend, Jaxson, close behind.
Students shot their hands out into the aisles to give the Portuguese water dog a pat on the back. Jaxson, better known as Jax, is St. Francis de Sales’ newest employee.
Three days a week, Jax accompanies Robrecht, the school’s computer-science teacher and librarian, to school as a therapy dog. He was trained in Zanesville and will have to pass a final exam in July to be a certified support animal.
The Catholic school in Newark introduced Jax to students at the beginning of the school year.
Robrecht said teachers were brainstorming ideas for a project to submit to the Follett Challenge, which rewards schools that find innovative ways to help students learn. Winners of the Follett Challenge can win up to $60,000 for their schools.
“Wellness was a target for this generation and for this area of the state,” Robrecht said. “We want them to be happy to come to school.”
A therapy dog, she said, could be an answer. At first, it was kind of a joke, but once Principal Sally Mummey was on board, Robrecht got to work researching pups, she said. Robrecht covered the upfront costs for Jax, who lives with her and her husband when he’s not at school.
Although no dog is 100 percent hypoallergenic, Robrecht said Jax is a low allergy risk because he is purebred, and Portuguese water dogs don’t shed.
During his visits, Jax sticks by Robrecht’s side most of the day. He follows her as she answers students’ questions about computer code, and he joins her in the library.
One reason that students say they enjoy having Jax at school is the calming presence he brings to the classroom. The school introduced coding classes this year, and the subject has made some students anxious.
“It was definitely nerve-wracking at first,” said Nate Willis, 13, “but Jax helps make it relaxed.”
Some teachers had concerns about the effects of a dog in a classroom.
“I wondered if he would be a distraction, but it’s been the opposite,” said Kelly Cahill Roberts, dean of students.
Maris Knowlton, 13, said students know Jax is there to be helpful, so the dog doesn’t keep them from their work. Knowlton said her two cats at home are more distracting than Jax ever has been.
Robrecht said she has seen students’ test scores go up and their anxiety levels go down since Jax arrived. If a student is struggling to read, Robrecht encourages them to try reading to Jax. Their words-per-minute shoot up, she said.
Robrecht and Jax also visit other classrooms. After the computer class, Jax made his way down the hall to Michele Blasczyk’s third-grade class just in time for the religion lesson. Robrecht and Jax joined students on the carpet as they filled in their workbooks. Jax quickly snuggled up next to 9-year-old Evan Seifert.
“Evan, Jax is making sure you’ve got the right answer,” Blasczyk joked.
Blasczyk said Jax just seems to know what students need him most on a given day.
“He helps kids when they get scared and sad,” said Ady Martin, 8, who just started attending the school this semester. “He makes me feel safe.”
One unexpected way that Jax has helped students is helping them feel more comfortable around animals.
Katie Shay, a reading specialist at the school, said she was a little apprehensive about having a dog at the school.
“I was a child who didn’t love dogs, and most people don’t understand kids who don’t like dogs,” Shay said.
Shay worried about some of her students who she knew were afraid of dogs.
“Having a leashed dog in the school has been extremely helpful to decrease their fears,” Shay said. “The kids learn to trust Jax, and they see that not all dogs are scary.”
St. Francis de Sales submitted a video proposal to the Follett Challenge explaining how having a therapy dog at school has improved students’ and teachers’ well-being. Results of the Follett Challenge won’t be known for a few months. If the school is awarded a grant, Robrecht will be reimbursed for her expenses.
Robrecht said winning or losing won’t affect the decision to keep Jax at school. The work he has done already, she said, has made him a good boy to have around.
Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com