George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

4 Legged SEL: How to Start a Therapy Dog Program

Elementary schools can boost social and emotional learning with a program that welcomes a canine friend to campus.

May 11, 2022
Therapy dog in classroom
Courtesy of Laura Wheeler
Winnie the therapy dog hard at work at the author’s school.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) doesn’t always look like a lesson plan, a professional development workshop, or a box of SEL curriculum. Ideally, SEL is part of a school’s culture—you can feel it when you walk through the doors, see it in the hallways and the cafeteria, and hear it in the classrooms and on the playground. SEL is how we build relationships, manage our emotions, practice resilience in the face of adversity, and make decisions.

While it’s important that many of those skills are explicitly taught to students, schools can offer experiences that integrate SEL into nearly every moment of a school day. At my school, those experiences are evident on “Winnie Wednesdays,” when Winnie the therapy dog visits students and staff to spread love throughout the building. SEL looks like a hug between Winnie and an anxious student, it sounds like a squeal of laughter as students gather around Winnie at recess and throw a tennis ball for him, and it feels like emerging confidence from a struggling reader as they quietly read aloud to a nonjudgmental furry friend. 

Be Attentive to Temperament

A therapy dog that works in a school needs to have a calm temperament that responds well to loud noises and crowds of children. In any given school day, bells ring, fire drills occur, and the general chaos of a school requires that a therapy dog not be reactive.

My family adopted Winnie when he was 5 years old. I immediately noticed that his calm and patient temperament, coupled with his love of being around children, seemed to be the perfect fit for a school. I obtained Winnie’s certification through Alliance of Therapy Dogs. Being a therapy dog is less about a dog’s obedience and more about its desire to provide comfort and socialize with a variety of children and adults.

What to Consider for Campus Visits

It’s important to note that when planning who the handler will be in a school, that person should have some flexibility to work throughout the building with a variety of students, rather than having a staff member who is committed to one classroom or population of students. This ensures that the school can maximize the benefits of a therapy dog, and all students and staff are able to interact with the beloved four-legged staff member.

School administration and members of the school board worked together to develop a policy and plan for Winnie to begin “working” at school with the students and staff. We prioritized communicating with families, and parents were encouraged to share their concerns and questions. Issues such as allergies, dog aversion, and fear of dogs were raised, and these were carefully documented and planned for.

During Winnie’s visits, I keep a list of student needs and issues to be aware of in each classroom. Winnie initially did introductory visits in each classroom, and students were able to decide if they wanted to pat him or watch him from a distance. Then, Winnie began spending time in hallways and social areas, and gradually students who were afraid of dogs began interacting with him.

Interactions are student led and very much dictated by their individual comfort level. Students with allergies enjoy Winnie from a few feet away, and Winnie also receives regularly scheduled grooming and allergen-reducing baths to lessen the effects of allergens in the building. In many cases, the students’ fear of dogs or aversion to animals has significantly reduced after meeting and interacting with Winnie. The therapeutic benefits of having a dog at school far outweigh the concerns, and the school community has welcomed and embraced Winnie on campus.

Therapy Dogs Enhance the Culture of SEL

Classroom time with Winnie is scheduled through a monthly Google Doc that is sent out with times that staff members can choose. Winnie is scheduled for approximately three hours in classroom requests on Wednesdays, and then he roams the building in whatever areas his handler needs to be throughout the day. Some examples of the way Winnie is utilized throughout the school is participating in reading groups, visiting a morning meeting, walking through a classroom to ease nerves before a test, snuggling a student in a calm-down space, playing at recess, and monitoring the hallways and greeting students.

The school data, such as attendance records and office referrals, also supports the integration of a therapy dog. A reduction in behavioral incidents and an increase in attendance rates have been noted on Winnie Wednesdays. Overall, therapy dogs support student and staff wellness, and they are a perfect example of integrated social and emotional learning.

Winnie has become a social equalizer in many ways, as he brings together groups of students and sets a tone of acceptance and kindness. Interacting with animals naturally produces an increase in oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin levels, which are linked to a positive emotional state. Simply stated, having a dog in the building that interacts with staff and students improves the overall emotional climate and fosters positive relationships.

Opportunities for SEL integration, such as reading buddies, leadership roles, and activities that support the overall mental health and wellness of staff and students, are likely already in place within each school. Start with taking inventory of these important opportunities, and brainstorm ways to expand on these integrative experiences.

Therapy Dogs Support the Three Stages of SEL

SEL integration includes three important stages: identification, implementation, and evaluation. The identification phase at my school involved taking inventory of our practices. That led to the decision to dedicate our culture to offering opportunities for social and emotional growth. This mindset has demystified SEL for the staff and has laid the foundation to implement such a program as Winnie Wednesdays.

In the implementation phase, staff work together to create a vision and plan for what SEL looks like, feels like, and sounds like for both students and staff. On our campus, the counselors create SEL lesson plans that are taught in an integrated format within the classrooms with teachers present. Implementation also includes the important opportunities to practice SEL skills that can be integrated into experiences with a therapy dog.

For example, a student who has recently learned strategies for managing emotions may take a break and sit with Winnie for a few quiet moments and then return to a challenging task. Or, if students are learning about compromising with peers, they may be able to practice that skill as they take turns throwing the ball for Winnie at recess or waiting their turn to pat him at dismissal. A student who has recently learned about using a growth mindset may practice reading or math facts with Winnie listening, knowing that it is OK to make mistakes and he won’t judge them for their speed or accuracy.

Lastly, continuous participation and evaluation of SEL efforts and plans that include administration, staff, and students will ensure long-term efficacy in the area of social and emotional learning, which ultimately has a positive impact on academic outcomes. What does SEL look, sound, and feel like in your school? A possible component of SEL could have four legs, a tail, and a fluffy coat, and unite students and staff in a feeling of acceptance and compassion.

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Filed Under

  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • School Culture
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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