Learning is ‘Pawtastic’ at local school

Therapy dogs visit McKinley Elementary to help students

By: Maria Allard | Warren Weekly | Published November 6, 2017

 Coal, a 9-year-old black Lab — who is owned by McKinley Elementary School second-grade teacher Allison Temple — relaxes with first-grader Dequan Ford.

Coal, a 9-year-old black Lab — who is owned by McKinley Elementary School second-grade teacher Allison Temple — relaxes with first-grader Dequan Ford.

Photo by Deb Jacques

WARREN — Educators are always trying to find ways to help their students achieve.

So when several teachers at McKinley Elementary School in Van Dyke Public Schools brainstormed ideas to assist a group of students, they brought in some four-legged friends.

Staff members came up with Pawtastic Time, a therapy dog program aimed to support the school’s most at-risk students. Once a week, dogs and their owners visit McKinley to mingle with the students. The students meet in small groups with the pooches for about 20 minutes per group; the pets usually stay for about an hour total. The pets and the students normally head over to the media center during visits, and the dogs rotate weeks.

Pawtastic Time is designed to support empathy and compassion in students, help them make connections in the school setting and reduce anxiety. The students who have become friends with dogs Clyde, Quincy, Mitzy and Coal range from kindergarten to fifth grade. When together, students pet the dogs, play with them, hug them and curl up with them. Some kids also find books to read to the animals.

According to Assistant Principal Stephanie LaBelle, research has shown that a therapy dog’s presence in a school setting can increase reading skills with students reading to the dogs and can contribute to social and emotional development.

“They wait for this all week long. The same 20 students visit with dogs every week,” LaBelle said. “It’s just really cool to watch the kids with the dogs. They don’t have to worry about anything. It’s a way to just get lost with the dogs.”

On Oct. 19, Anne Wheatley brought in 9-year-old Coal, who actually belongs to her daughter, Allison Temple, a second-grade teacher at McKinley. Coal visited with the students, who petted and played with the black Lab. Fifth-grader Christopher Brace even read author Jonathan Rand’s “Mackinaw City Mummies” to the dog.

“This is my first time,” fourth-grade student Mike Lantz said of meeting Coal. “I love it.”

“This is my second time,” second-grade student C.J. Wright added.

Fifth-grade student Tony Bartolotta said he “pretty much likes everything” about the dogs.

“I like Quincy,” Brace said. “She gives me kisses. She’s small.”

When it was time for first-grader Dequan Ford to visit with Coal, he put his arms around him as they got better acquainted. Second-grade student Denzell Williams couldn’t wait to spend time with the dog.

The dog owners also benefit from their visits with the students.

“I enjoy being with the kids. It’s kind of good therapy for me, the students and the dog,” Wheatley said. “If I can see the kids smile and learn to love from them, that makes me happy.”

Stacy Zwicker, a success coach for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, organized Pawtastic Time for the school. Zwicker works for the Pathways to Potential program, which is assigned to McKinley and offers extra support and assistance to students who benefit from such a program.