Therapy pets in schools is a growing trend across the nation and Sidney High School counselor Mary Pfau brought the matter in front of the board during the regular meeting Monday, Dec. 9.
“The benefits far outweigh the disadvantages to having a (therapy) dog in the classroom or in the guidance area,” Pfau said.
Board trustees had many questions about the responsibility of having a designated therapy animal on campus. While it would be considered a district therapy dog, most of the discussion centered around potentially having the dog at the high school.
Pfau said there are several schools around Montana who utilize therapy dogs, including Glendive and Helena. In 2017, the Billings Gazette printed an article out of Kalispell about their implementation of therapy dogs at the local schools of Summit Preparatory, Smith Valley School and Kalispell Montessori. Those schools still use therapy dogs today.
Smith Valley Principal Laili Komenda said her dog Sitka has come to school with her for years now and has become a fixture at Smith Valley.
“He is trained as a therapy dog. For the first two years of his life I took every training class I could,” Komenda said. “Then I went to Missoula to be tested with Pet Partners and passed that test.”
Komenda said it’s been important to have that certification from Pet Partners.
“My school board has permitted me to have him here because of his status of passing that test,” she said.
As Sitka belongs to Komenda, she provides the liability insurance for the animal. Echoing what Pfau said to the Sidney School Board, the benefits have far outweighed any hardships.
“It has been such a blessing for our school,” Komenda said. “I get here in the morning and Sitka runs to the playground and there’s a flock of kids around him. He’s a real joy to have here. It’s been good for staff too... As people say, ‘I need my Sitka-fix.’ I’m very thankful to my school board for entertaining the idea.”
For Sidney School Board, the idea was met with some skepticism.
“Is there a need for this?” trustee Craig Steinbeisser asked.
Pfau said the need is huge and would provide stress relief and emotional support for students.
“I think it would make a huge, huge difference for our kids,” she said.
Steinbeisser asked about the clean-up responsibilities. Pfau explained the animal would be professionally trained, thus eliminating the concerns most people would have about a traditional house pet. Steinbeisser then inquired about students who are possibly allergic to animals.
“There are ways around that. There are hypoallergenic dogs you can get,” Pfau said. “There’s also wipes you can get. And then cleaning.”
Pfau said since it was her proposal, she would expect to be the person who assumes cleaning duties in the counselor area after the dog goes home.
“If there is a problem with an allergy, then the dog stays away from that person or that person stays away from the dog, whichever the case may be,” she said.
Superintendent Monte Silk asked about the benefit of human interaction and friendship versus a therapy animal, which Pfau addressed.
“Human friends are awesome. I’m not saying that’s not the case. The nice thing about pet therapy is there’s no judgement,” she said.
Silk also wondered if the issue wasn’t personally motivated, as Pfau is a dog owner herself.
“It is personalized. I really do believe in this,” she said. “I don’t care if it’s my dog or not, to be honest with you. If there’s a handler out there that’s already trained, I’d be more than happy to let them use my office. I do believe it will make a huge difference in the kids’ lives.”
As word has spread around the high school about a potential therapy dog, Pfau said she’s had numerous students inquire about it, excited at the possibility.
Trustee chair Ben Thorgersen shared his concerns about time management for staff.
“We’ve gotten the feedback that kids don’t have enough facetime with counselors,” he said. If the therapy dog was there one day a week, he worried that would further limit those time frames.
Trustee Kelly Dey urged board members to keep an open mind.
“These aren’t just dogs we have at home. These are trained dogs,” Dey said. “I just urge everyone that maybe we don’t make a motion and action on it right now. But I don’t think it’s something we should dismiss.”
The board agreed to table the topic for now until things are more progressed with the implementation of a four-day school week.
In other news
After reviewing a potential calendar for 2020-21, Sidney School Board sent the calendar back the calendar committee, as there is a discrepancy of six hours that need to be assigned to a specific day or days for staff. The calendar is modeled for a four-day school week.
Sidney High School will be implementing key pad and fob reader entry in eight locations, including IT entry (north side of the building into multi-purpose room and gym hallway), gym exterior door, gym interior door, east and west boys locker room, east and west girls locker room and the library. The approved bid comes from Electricland in Sidney in the amount of $18,562.
New hire recommendations were approved for Debra Denowh, Westside library/media specialist; Emily Keegan, elementary girls basketball; and Tim Tharp, activity bus driver.
Christmas break for the district will run from Dec. 26-Jan. 3.