Figure 1. Comfort dog and AKC Canine Good Citizen certificate holder Tamar McLean at home. Tamar is a black lab who started life as a Southeastern Guide Dog Puppy in Training. She was on track to be a guide dog when the pandemic hit and 60 dogs from Southeastern were furloughed. CD McLean and her husband, who had also been Tamar’s puppy raisers, adopted her back.
Comfort Dogs in the Jean Ann Cone Library
(serving Grades 6-12)
By CD McLean and Courtney Walker
Comfort + Library = Comfort Dogs in the Library
We wanted to give you all an overview of how our dogs in the library program got its start and how it has morphed into something much more complex than what was originally envisioned. So I turned to our Library Director, CD McLean to share the journey of our comfort dog program.
CD has been the Upper Division librarian at Berkeley Prep School in Tampa, FL for the last 21 years and the library director for 20. For the first ten of those years, she tried various methods to get the headmaster at the time (Joseph A. Merluzzi) to agree to let her bring her dog to school. She wrote an opinion piece for the school newspaper on the benefits of dogs at school. She would email him articles on how literacy improved when children read to dogs. He was pretty firm in his decision not to have dogs on campus.
However, one member of the Berkeley Board of Trustees was also on the board of Southeastern Guide Dogs: Bobby Newman. He helped Southeastern start their veteran service dog program and has been a long-time donor to the organization. At the same time, CD was thinking about how she could incorporate more giving into her and her husband’s lives.
Years before, she had expressed an interest in Southeastern and becoming a puppy raiser, but her husband said she would never give the puppies back. So this time, CD gave her husband two choices: become a puppy raiser or go on a medical mission to Haiti. Fred, who was at heart a dog lover, picked Southeastern. Once they had that decided, between CD bringing in a Southeastern representative and Bobby talking about all the good work Southeastern and their dogs do, it was a pretty easy yes for the headmaster.
Eleven years and eleven puppies later, CD and Fred had adopted back several of their former puppies. In particular, Tamar was certified with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs and she and Slater have earned their AKC Canine Good Citizen certification. After eleven years of puppies, CD was looking for something a little calmer. Tamar was an exceptional dog who was on track to make it as a guide dog, according to her trainer. Tamar was well known at school and loved by the students. She has a special knack for picking out students who might be having a stressful day.
With that in mind, CD decided to propose the idea of a comfort dog at Berkeley. A dog who would be available all the time to students.
Certifications/Qualifications of Handler
CD McLean has been raising and training Southeastern Guide dog puppies for over 10 years. Last year, CD was inducted into Southeastern’s Puppy Raiser Hall of Fame. For the last two years, she has also been a puppy kindergarten teacher for Southeastern, which involves running a six-week course for new puppy raisers on how to train and socialize their puppies. In addition, she has been asked by Southeastern to be a dog assessor for their Basic Skills Training Assessment (BSTA) program where guide dog puppies in training are evaluated for readiness before they go back in for training to Southeastern.
About Tamar and Slater
Tamar was on her way to being a guide dog when the pandemic hit. She and 59 other dogs were furloughed. Her trainer told McLean that she was on her way to be a guide dog if not for Covid. Here is one of the last comments from her trainer on her abilities:
Tamar has made a lot of improvement, especially with her obedience. She is sitting and laying close rather than pulling back to sit or laying out to the side. She is a very trainable dog who loves to learn and loves to do well. She is just a love of a dog…so affectionate and fun!
Slater is also a former Southeastern Guide Dog puppy and spent a year at Berkeley while McLean and her husband were raising him. He was dropped from consideration for being a guide dog because of anxiety and a dog distraction, but at Berkeley he is able to take away a student’s anxiety just by being cuddled.
Figure 2. An Upper Division Student Chills with Slater.
Tamar is a former guide dog in training, meaning she was on our campus for a year with our students. Tamar quickly gained a reputation for being very empathetic. Her favorite thing to do was to walk around the library and pick out the students she thought were stressed. She would go over and lay down next to them for some belly rubs or, sometimes, if it was convenient, she just climbed right up into their laps.
Figure 3. Ross was having a tough day so Tamar curled up in his lap.
Recommendation from rising senior Kellen Furmaniak:
“Tamar was the sweetest puppy I’ve ever met! It was my first year at Berkeley in 9th grade and I was pretty shy since the Berkeley atmosphere was extremely different than the other ones I had been familiar with. I would spend most afternoons waiting for my Dad in the library while sitting in the bean bags alone, and next thing I knew, I had a round plush cow next to me with Tamar’s happy face and wagging tail pointing straight towards me. I remember how gentle she was with her toy and how she would lean into me when I gave her pets, all while holding that plush. She brought me so much joy in my first year and was the most amazing puppy ever!”
Figure 4. Baby Tamar at a puppy palooza at school.
Tamar has attended three exam week puppy paloozas. The puppy paloozas were all extremely well attended by grades 9-12. Counselor Landau said that students asked when the puppies would be back on her Stress Less surveys.
Figure 5. Tamar was a big napper and she often helped stressed out high school students to relax enough to sleep.
Figure 6. Tamar just loves to be loved.
Berkeley graduate Rajshree Chettiyar had this to say about Tamar:
“It is no secret that Mrs. McLean’s guide dog puppies attract a lot of students to the library for lunch or after school playtime. While the pretense of those visits may seem light-hearted, most of these students come to momentarily forget their stress or anxieties relating to school and beyond. Thus, having a designated therapy dog would be so valuable for the Berkeley community who can now confidently walk into Mrs. McLean’s office without feeling like an intrusion or fearing rejection if the puppy has their coat on. Having worked with Mrs. McLean and her guide dogs closely, it is without a doubt that all her puppies are friendly and sweet. Even so, there isn’t a better dog to recruit as a therapy dog than Tamar. Having known Tamar since she was a puppy, she has grown into such a confident and loving dog. She loves pets and gives plenty of kisses but seldom gets over-energetic or rowdy which is an important trait for a therapy dog. Tamar’s composed demeanor makes her a perfect candidate for a therapy dog, especially for students who are not well-acquainted with dogs. Tamar is a very confident and empathetic dog who stays calm and sweet in most situations, but can also show her goofy side when she knows the student is comfortable and happy around her. This duality is priceless in a therapy dog, and with her added experience in the Berkeley community, there is no better candidate for a therapy dog than Tamar.”
This fall, Tamar and Slater were tested for the AKC Canine Good Companion Certification (CGC). They both passed on their first try. The AKC CGC assesses the following things:
- Being accepting of a nice stranger
- Sitting politely while being petted
- Standard grooming and appearance
- Walking on a leash
- Being around a crowd
- Sitting and staying on command
- Coming when called
- Reacting suitably to distractions (“Helping Students Deal with Stress and Anxiety”)
In addition to being able to do the above items, Tamar’s temperament was also evaluated at Southeastern. She was
- Able to remain calm in difficult or stressful environments (she has been through several fire drills with no problems)
- Capable of being around other dogs and/or animals (she is a very dog-friendly dog, she is not distracted by birds, lizards, etc.)
- React well to distractions (she is calm in the presence of distractions)
- Isn’t bothered by older adults and younger children (Tamar loves adults, but in particular, she loves all ages of children) (“Helping Students Deal with Stress and Anxiety”)
Tamar has also been certified as a therapy dog with Alliance of Therapy Dogs (ATD).
The mission of Berkeley Preparatory School’s comfort dog program is to offer love and support opportunities for motivational, educational, and/or therapeutic benefits to enhance a student’s quality of life.
A study at the University of Ottawa found that therapy dogs unequivocally offer love and support to students. Love was understood as having reciprocal love for dogs and gaining a positive feeling from visiting them. Support was understood as de-stressing and relaxing from interacting with the dogs and to a much lesser extent with the handlers (Dell, Colleen et al).
Benefits to Students, Faculty and Staff
Hundreds of universities around the country have launched pet therapy programs for students since 2005, when the first colleges and universities set up programs.
Berkeley’s AP Psychology teacher and clinical psychologist Dr. Michelle Barrett had this to say about having a therapy or emotional support dog (ESD) on campus for students:
For me, the most convincing evidence in support for an ESD is how petting these dogs actually brings about physiological changes, particularly when stressed or anxious. Research consistently supports a reduction in heart rate and blood pressure when petting an animal. Even more significant is the documented reduction in cortisol levels (stress hormone) and increase in oxytocin (feel good/social connection hormone). This is really strong evidence that there can be a decrease in stress/anxiety and a mood boost, potentially for depression/loneliness, simply by petting a dog. There are very few interventions that are this simple, fast, and effective.
Some resources she recommends:
Our UD Counselor Tiffany Landau was also supportive of having Tamar on campus for students. Landau and our other UD counselor Michele Khalife run the Stress Less Week which is the week before Thanksgiving. It is a week of fun activities such as meditation, yoga, etc. for students to do during lunch to take some of the pressure off of them. Landau mentioned that there were many responses to her surveys on Stress Less Week where students asked when the puppies would come back for exam stress relief. McLean has worked with the counselors in prior years to create an event called Puppy Palooza, which is held on the Friday of BRAK week. BRAK stands for Berkeley Random Acts of Kindness. This week occurs on the week after Thanksgiving and before final exams. For puppy palooza, McLean sent an email to area puppy raisers with Southeastern Guide Dogs to come to school on that Friday from 10-2 pm. We also provide them lunch.
Having a dog on campus isn’t just for stress. Inside Higher Ed recently published their analysis of a recent report on at-risk students:
“College students who were at risk for failing and who spent more time with therapy dogs over the course of a four-week academic stress management program were more likely to experience improvements in their executive functioning skills, such as time management and coping techniques, than students who spent less time interacting with the dogs, found a study published in the American Educational Research Association’s journal, AERA Open.”
“It’s a really powerful finding,” said Patricia Pendry, associate professor in WSU’s Department of Human Development. “Universities are doing a lot of great work trying to help students succeed academically, especially those who may be at risk due to a history of mental health issues or academic and learning issues. This study shows that traditional stress management approaches aren’t as effective for this population compared with programs that focus on providing opportunities to interact with therapy dogs.”
Yale Law Library was one of the first universities to start a therapy dog program to help with law student stress. The culture of the Yale Law Library is similar to the Jean Ann Cone Library in that the library has a culture of creating community with its users. Like the Cone Library checking out frisbees during sunny days, the Yale law library checks out games and, wait for it, their therapy dog (Aiken; Aiken and Cadmus; Xu; Prihar).
Librarians at the Yale Law Library sought to fit into the architectural concept of the “3rd space:” which is a place where people come, not for the purposes of living (1st space) or working (2nd space), but rather for some other purpose like studying or research, socializing or just enjoying themselves (Aiken; Aiken and Cadmus; Xu; Prihar).
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) study found that having a dog present in the classroom promotes a positive mood and provides significant anti-stress effects on the body. Petting a dog lowers the blood pressure and heart rate. Pet therapy lowers the body’s stress hormones like cortisol and increases oxytocin. It found that a therapy dog session calms students and helps to keep anxiety in check.
Interacting with a therapy dog has a social catalyst effect which leads to increased stimulation of social behavior. In essence, it helps students develop a greater capacity for empathy. The NIH found that “the presence of a dog in an educational setting seems to support concentration, attention, motivation and relaxation reflecting the reduction of high-stress levels which inhibit effective learning and performance. (Mulvahill)”
Berkeley rising junior Katie Dann certainly found that having a dog at school was a great stress reliever.
I’ve always found relief in being around dogs. After I got my dog in fifth grade, I learned that for me, there was nothing more stress-relieving than just petting and being around her. When I began my freshman year, I was experiencing pretty heavy amounts of stress and anxiety due to the new environment, rigorous work, and social situations. I was extremely lucky to have made a connection with Slater when I did. During my frequent trips to go visit Slater, I always left feeling calmer and more grounded. His comforting snuggles can always make me feel better. I believe that Slater truly is the best dog for an emotional support dog. He can almost tell whenever I’m stressed and he’ll always respond by giving me a couple of kisses or laying his head on my lap and falling asleep. Slater truly has been one of the reasons I am where I am today. Without his support during those tough days, I could have really struggled elsewhere. His constant love and support for everyone he interacts with is why I think Slater would truly be the most perfect emotional support animal.
In the article “Helping Students Deal with Stress and Anxiety,” the author lists the following benefits of having a therapy/comfort dog in your school:
Mental and Emotional Benefits:
- Lowered anxiety
- Decreased loneliness
- Ease in talking about distressing or troubling events
- Release of happy hormones, such as oxytocin
- Lowering of stress hormones, such as cortisol
- Increased socialization
- Improved connections with others on campus
- Increased clarity and focus
- Lowered blood pressure
- Slowing of heart rate
- Slower, more controlled breathing, especially in those with anxiety
Some thoughts on dogs at school from Berkeley History teacher Scott Saposnik:
It has been said that, “dogs are man’s best friend,” and after this past year of enormous and unprecedented challenges, I cannot think of a better example of how our canine friends are always there for us, in good times, and in bad. Dogs are the living reflections of our best selves: compassionate, giving, loving, loyal, and always eager and ready to lend a hand, or paw, as the case may be. While I know many of my days in the past year at Berkeley have been buoyed by the friendly presence of the dog Hagrid, I also know that I am hardly alone: Many of my fellow colleagues, and many of my students have commented to me about a moment of pure joy they experienced by just having a few quiet moments with the puppy in the library. I can think of no better way to further the goal of fostering a community that is well, than to embrace the presence of our furry friends, the therapy dogs.
Figure 8. History teacher Scott Saposnik and Slater.
A study of small southeastern colleges found a reduction of self-reported anxiety and loneliness in 60% of the participants of a therapy dog program. Additionally, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America found that students experience stress and anxiety in staggering numbers (“Animal Assisted Therapy”).
- 30% of students said stress affected their academic performance
- 41.6% said anxiety was a top concern
- 85% told researchers they felt overwhelmed by expectations and demands in the previous academic year
Therapy/comfort dogs can also help students – particularly introverts – with socializing (“Helping Students Deal”).
“Having a dog to focus on takes some of the anxiety out of having a conversation with someone new,” said Carol O’Saben, a licensed psychologist and pet therapy expert (“Helping Students Deal”).
Essentially, dogs don’t see color, gender, size or shape. They don’t see grades. Dogs are good listeners who don’t make judgments.
Service Dog v. Comfort Dog
A SE Guide Dog puppy in training is considered a service dog. A service dog is trained to help one person in a certain task. As such, its goal is not to provide comfort to many students. A therapy/comfort dog is trained and certified to provide psychological and physiological therapy to individuals or groups of people who are not their handler. Unlike service and emotional support animals, therapy/comfort animals are encouraged to socialize and interact with other people while on-duty (“Helping Students Deal with Stress and Anxiety”).
Our goal with bringing a comfort dog to Berkeley is to provide daily support to students (especially students in grades 6-12) to help with their stress and anxiety. A secondary goal would be to build community in the library and be a place where students come to relax and renew.
What Does a Typical Day Look Like?
While both Slater and Tamar love coming to school and interacting with students and faculty, it is emotionally draining. That is why we have Tamar come on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and Slater comes on Tuesday and Thursday. That allows both dogs to have some time off to just be a dog.
Any of the library staff can handle the two comfort dogs. We have had Tamar go spend the morning in College Counseling when there was a stressful due dates and we anticipated stressed out seniors. Since we just enacted this comfort dog program, there are many possibilities for how the dogs could be used on campus.
Since Tamar is particularly adept at helping new students feel more comfortable (see comments by students Kellen and Katie), she and McLean are happy to be incorporated into any programs/meetings/retreats for new students.
Fortunately, we have had 11 years, problem-free with having dogs on campus, as we have had a Southeastern Guide Dog puppy in training on campus for the past 11 years. Additionally, the Middle Division counselor had her personal pet Wells for several years without problems. Below are some of the concerns that might come up. In regards to a therapy/comfort dog, the most relevant concerns would be cleanliness, allergies and students/faculty who might have a fear of dogs.
- The library is vacuumed every evening eliminating all pet hair/dander that might result from having the comfort dog in the library.
- We provide hand sanitizer for students and faculty to use after a session with the comfort dog. Additionally, we usually have a lint roller, because labs shed constantly.
- Vacuuming every evening will take care of any loose pet dander in the library.
- The comfort dog is bathed and groomed regularly.
- Hand washing and sanitizer should take care of any dander from a visit with the dog.
- If a student is severely allergic to dogs, Mrs McLean won’t bring the dog to their class. We can also make accommodations for study halls if they let us know the morning they will be stopping by so we can put Tamar in her crate in Mrs. McLean’s office.
Fear of Dogs
- “One of the most powerful ways to reshape fearful behavior response is by providing a positive peer behavioral model. Watching children enjoy and safely interact with a dog may encourage a fearful child to give it a try (Mulvahill).”
- While Tamar was on campus, we did have a student who was severely afraid of dogs. McLean did not bring Tamar into the classroom with that student. She also put Tamar into her crate if the student was in the library.
Who Else Has a Therapy Dog?
It is hard to get a firm number on how many schools (public and private) have a therapy dog program. According to the Facebook Group School Therapy Dogs, which is a moderated group allowing only handlers at schools to join, their membership list is over 6,000. The table below is just a few of the names of independent and private schools that allow comfort dogs on campus or that have a comfort dog program. The list is not exhaustive.
Table 1. List of Independent Schools that Have a Comfort Dog.
|Independent/Private School Name
|St. Paul Academy and Summit School, St. Paul, MN (the director of teaching and learning brings her dog to campus)
|Trinity Preparatory School, Winter Park, FL (guidance counselor raises therapy dogs and they also bring in therapy dogs during exams)
|Marlborough School, Los Angeles, CA (has therapy dog on campus)
|Marist School, Atlanta, GA (only use therapy dogs for exam stress)
|St. Margaret’s Episcopal School, San Juan Capistrano, CA (had therapy dogs on campus after death of a student)
|Trinity Episcopal School, New Orleans, LA (therapy dog is in the library)
|Roland Park Country School, Baltimore, MD (therapy dog is in the library)
|Webb School of Knoxville, Knoxville, TN (various faculty bring their dogs through HABIT, which is a therapy dog program in Tenn. They also bring therapy dogs in during exams.)
|Menlo School, Atherton, CA (supports students training service dogs and allows those dogs on campus)
Figure 9. River is Librarian Diane Haneski’s therapy dog that she brings to Marjoried Stoneman Douglass high school every day.
The following list is just a few of the colleges and Universities who have instituted a therapy/comfort dog program for their students. In addition, half of the 98 universities in Canada have either a permanent therapy dog program or bring therapy dogs on campus at exams.
Table 2. Universities with Comfort Dog Programs.
|Yale Law School
|Univ. of Ottawa
|University of Connecticut
|The Rochester Institute of Technology
|California State University, San Bernardino
|UC San Diego
|La Sierra University in Riverside
|Kent State University
|University of Minnesota
|University of Northern Colorado
|Washington & Jefferson College
|University of Central Florida
|University of Central Lancashire
|University of Iowa
|University of British Columbia
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