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Connolly Elementary School Launches its Therapy Dog Program

Connolly Elementary School is giving students a break from the “ruff” school day with its first therapy dog program.   

Students are given time to pet, unwind and even practice their reading skills with a therapy dog to relieve stress. Connolly began a pilot program through which selected students meet with a Chocolate Labrador named Maddie and her handler twice a month. The school plans to bring in more dogs and extend the program to any student interested in participating.   

“Coming back from the pandemic, a lot of kids began showing anxiety and nervousness, so this was one of the ways we wanted to help them relax. Dog therapy has been around for decades and has been proven to have therapeutic benefits such as reducing stress and improving mood” said Principal Bryce Klatsky.

Teachers Patty Lucci and Morgan Steiger spearheaded the program, which was sponsored by local business AMP Home Inspections and brings in dogs from Bideawee in Wantagh and Long Island Therapy Dogs.

The first few sessions were geared toward students in the school’s reading program and gave them a chance to read to dogs without fear of judgement.

“It really helps children who are shy or afraid to read in front of their peers. They could pet the dog and calm their nerves when they read. It also gives them a bit of extra love, which is sometimes all they need,” said Ms.  Lucci.

While animal-assisted therapy has been growing in popularity in recent history, the practice has been studied for over a century. Florence Nightingale, considered the founder of modern nursing, recognized its potential in the late 1800s when she paired children and adults in psychiatric institutions with small pets. In her renowned 1859 book, Notes on Nursing, she recorded how having an animal companion helped her patients recover.

Dr. Sigmund Freud revived a public interest in animal therapy, specifically with dogs, in the 1930s when he brought his own pet Jo-Fi to therapy sessions and noted the calming affect it had on his patients. 

In 1961, Dr. Boris Levinson became known as the “father of animal-assisted therapy” when he accidentally left his dog Jingles alone with a young patient who was withdrawn and nonverbal. On returning, Dr. Levinson found the boy communicating with Jingles. He began using Jingles in his child psychotherapy sessions and wrote a book in 1969 called Pet-Oriented Child Psychotherapy.

Dogs are most often used in animal-assisted therapy because of their nonjudgmental nature and desire to protect others. Bideawee, which also has locations in Westhampton and Manhattan, launched its Pet Therapy Program in 1986 and trains handlers and animals to visit schools, nursing homes and hospitals.

Therapy Dogs of Long Island is a nonprofit run by volunteers who train their own dogs and bring them to children and adults in homes, hospitals, nursing homes, camps, schools, libraries and organizations.

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