Apple Valley Elementary Therapy Dog Program

It’s official...Apple Valley has “gone to the dogs!”  We are excited to introduce therapy dogs to Apple Valley and share with you the plans we have been carefully working on over the last two years. Trained and certified Love on a Leash (LOAL) therapy dog teams have begun visiting our school this year. Each parent was contacted in advance with therapy dog information for the 19-20 school year and was asked to provide signed consent in order for their children to have the option to participate. While therapy dogs are new to Apple Valley, they have been a part of the West Valley School District family for several years. Trained LOAL teams have visited students at Summitview, Mountainview, Ahtanum and the Middle School. Dog teams from other organizations have also been utilized in the Selah School District and Children’s Village.

While we are extremely excited to have LOAL join us, we also recognize that their organization is in high demand. In order to meet our students’ growing needs, we have been developing our own school-based therapy dog program specific to Apple Valley. Below are a few answers to the most commonly asked questions.

Who are the Apple Valley therapy dogs? We currently have three dogs on our school team. Let us introduce you to Kassie, Howie and Mo!

Kassie is a one year old goldendoodle who underwent training with Dogology NW (Spokane), Acme Canine Center (Yakima) and with the Central Washington chapter of LOAL. Kassie’s owner/handler is Meghan Alderson, the Apple Valley school psychologist and counselor. She will likely be the dog the students interact with the most as she will regularly come to work with her person.  Kassie loves children and adults of all ages and has a natural temperament suited to calm her humans. Kassie enjoys long walks on the beach (or on the sidewalk when not on vacation), eating a wide variety of foods and treats (carbs are her favorite), bird watching and all things involving socks.

Howie, the only male on the team, is also a one year old goldendoodle and went through the same training organizations as Kassie with Dogology NW, Acme and LOAL. Howie’s owner/handler is Kelly Johnson, an Apple Valley kindergarten teacher. Howie enjoys playdates with his fur pals, snuggling with his people, and sharing his newest outdoor discoveries with others (leaves, bark, dirt, etc.).

Madrona, who is lovingly known as “Mo,” is a seven year old labradoodle with the energy of a two year old. Mo’s owner/handler is Judy Worley, an Apple Valley grandparent and retired elementary school nurse. Mo comes to us as the most experienced therapy dog. She obtained her certification with a westside chapter of Pet Partners, which is also a nationally recognized therapy dog program. While Mo is currently certified with Pet Partners, she is undergoing additional certification with our local chapter of LOAL in order to broaden her volunteer opportunities. Mo’s passions include hanging out with children, swimming, chasing deer and bunnies, and snacking on popcorn.

To learn more about the visiting team of LOAL dogs, you can see view pictures and follow their adventures on Facebook. Their page name is “Yakima Valley Love on a Leash.”

Our school therapy dogs were identified early in their puppyhood as having the ideal traits for therapy work. Breeders select dogs from litters who demonstrate a calm disposition, an inherent interest in pleasing and connecting with humans, and the ability to obediently follow commands. The dogs have been developing their obedience skills since birth. As the dogs have grown and matured, they have spent time in classrooms, visited nursing homes, shopped with their handlers in stores, and socialized with a variety of humans in many different public places. Prior to entering school, the dogs were required to undergo training programs and to be assessed to ensure mastery of their skills. 

What will the dogs do at school? The therapy dogs will be assigned to a variety of jobs at Apple Valley. Despite having “therapy” in their title, our dogs can also help our children with their academic development. A dog may lend an ear with an emerging reader who wants to share a book. Research has shown that reading to dogs increases reading skills with developing readers. Dogs may also be utilized with math games, creative writing activities, science lessons and art activities. 

While the academic success of our children is incredibly important, the social-emotional development of our children is just as much of a priority. Without healthy social and emotional skills, it may be difficult for some children to develop solid academic achievement. This is where the dogs’ assistance can be incredibly helpful. Therapy dogs are able to assist children who are experiencing significant loss or grief, challenges with their self-esteem, coping with the ins and outs of peer relationships, or managing responses to stress and anxiety. Students who may not feel comfortable speaking with an adult or peer can speak to a canine friend when they are having a tough day. The benefit for children is that a dog listens to them without judgment, does not tell them what to do or think, and does not offer any uncomfortable criticism. The dogs can also provide an opportunity for students to practice difficult conversations with others. Role playing tough talks can make it easier for kids to communicate and successfully accomplish interpersonal goals. Last, but not least, research has shown that petting a dog releases oxytocin into the brain, which in turn reduces stress and anxiety and helps a person feel better. 

What about allergies? We have coordinated with Nurse Tamra so that we can be aware of students who have allergy concerns. All parents have been asked to sign consent and have the option at any time to opt their children out of dog programs. While is completely understandable that you may feel concerned about exposure to an allergic reaction from the therapy dogs in the building, it is more likely that a higher level of animal allergens come into the classrooms daily on the clothing and backpacks of students and staff members than on the visiting therapy dogs. 

It is important to note that before any dog comes to school, their handlers ensure their dogs are healthy, well groomed and psychologically sound.  Dogs are cleaned and brushed before each visit. Students are also asked to wash their hands after having contact with a dog. Please know that your child is important to us and we will take proper precautions to avoid any negative reactions. 

How about the safety of the children? Your child’s safety is of the utmost importance. Children, whose parents have provided consent, will only be exposed to certified therapy dogs or dogs-in-training who are under the current supervision of a therapy dog program.  Each of these dogs have been screened and vetted as stable and reliable under a variety of situations. If your child has concerns about dogs they will never be forced to interact with them. Therapy dog participation is optional for children with signed parent consent.

Who can I reach out to for more information? Meghan Alderson may be reached with general therapy dog and programming questions by email at aldersonm@wvsd208.org. For allergy related questions, please contact Tamra Fewkes at fewkest@wvsd208.org.  If you have safety or district related questions, you may email our principal, Heidi Sutton, at suttonh@wvsd208.org.  You can also reach any of us by telephone at 972-5510. 

For details on the national Love on Leash therapy dog organization, please visit them online at http://www.loveonaleash.org/.