A four-legged faculty interacts, calms children

Northside Hospital helps bring therapy dog to Cumming Elementary

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CUMMING, Ga. — She is considered part of the staff at Cumming Elementary, but she doesn’t have a name tag. She does, however, have a dog tag.

The four-legged faculty member is Janski, a 19-month-old blond mixed breed Labrador Retriever. Janski is the school’s professional therapy dog, whose purchase was made possible by a donation from Northside Hospital’s Partners In Education (PIE) program. She’s been on staff since June and is Forsyth County’s only therapy dog.

“They are so trained,” said Bonnie O’Neil, a professional school counselor at Cumming Elementary. “They would not bite you even if you were to harm them.”

Janski is the second dog to grace the halls of Cumming Elementary.

The first, CD, died of cancer last March. His impact on students was so great, but the cost for a therapy dog was more than the school could afford. Northside Hospital’s PIE stepped in to assist with the purchase of Janski.

O’Neil is charged with caring for Janski all the time and considers the therapy dog a member of the family.

“She’s certified as an assistance dog, but her job is to interact whenever needed with any of the children,” O’Neil said. “Sometimes we use it as a therapy, sometimes it’s a reward.”

Research shows that the use of dogs in working with children can be beneficial. Professional therapy dogs are not service or guide dogs. They are not assigned to a specific person with physical and emotional disabilities or who are visually impaired. Rather, they offer support to students and staff by being good listeners and encouraging children to become better readers.

“Kids read to her, she gets measured. She has many uses,” said O’Neil. “She demonstrates good character traits and loves to socialize with the 1,150 students at the school.”

They are also known to assist with character education, motivate students and serve as a reward for students who demonstrate new or difficult behaviors.

The therapy dogs also comfort students who may be going through a difficult time by providing stress relief, unconditional love and acceptance.

Janski can be found in O’Neil’s office, where she might be comforting a student or lending a listening ear. She also works in the classroom, participating in math, reading, character education or guidance lessons.

A fellow school counselor and longtime friend of O’Neil first introduced her to the idea of having professional therapy dogs participate in the counseling process, after she had attended a national counseling conference and saw the dogs. That’s when O’Neil started the process to get approval for the school’s first dog, CD.

CD was with the school three years.

CD was credited by parents and teachers for making it possible for an autistic student to expand his vocabulary and speak outside his familiar realm by attending speech therapy with him, O’Neil said.

There are five self-contained classes of autistic children at Cumming Elementary.

CD helped relieve the child’s fear and anxiety, making it possible for him to take risks and learn. CD also was used to motivate a physically handicapped child to walk, by allowing the child to hold on to his therapy dog vest handle.

After CD died, there was a grieving period for all who knew him. The school planted a dogwood tree on the school’s front lawn in his memory.

Since the therapy dogs first came to the school, O’Neil said she has seen an overall improvement in the school atmosphere.

As far as allergies, O’Neil has contacted the parent of every student who had allergies or asthma to make sure Janski would not cause an adverse reaction.

“Their main goal is to help kids come down and feel good. Students are excited to be here and to see Janski,” O’Neil said. “They are willing to work hard for the possible reward of walking, reading to or playing with her.”