December 20, 2014

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School eagerly awaits resident therapy dog

NORTH RIDGEVILLE — For the children who always wanted a puppy but whose parents just won’t budge, the next best thing may be having a dog where they spend most of their time: at school.

Students at Liberty Elementary School in North Ridgeville are looking forward to the arrival of a school therapy dog. It will be the first school in Lorain County to have one of its very own.

Therapy dogs, commonly employed to comfort hospital patients and nursing home residents, have increasingly been used as classroom companions in schools across the nation. Gretchen Herzberger, a special education teacher at Liberty, said that therapy dogs can greatly improve morale and academic performance among students.

Liberty Elementary has had visiting therapy dogs at the school this year, and Herzberger said the results have been “amazing.”

“The speech kids read to the dogs, and they don’t stutter at all,” she said.

However, Herzberger said that Liberty’s own Lassie will benefit the entire student body, not just special needs students.

“It’s a good incentive for the kids. We use it for positive reinforcement and a rewards system,” she said.

She said that in the classroom, students share the responsibility of caring for the dog, who in return offers non-judgmental companionship. Guidance counselors also find therapy dogs to be effective aides. For instance, during counseling sessions, a compassionate canine can have a soothing effect on an upset child.

“Kids can often talk to a dog when they can’t talk to anyone else,” Herzberger said.

Dogs can be expensive pets, but this one won’t cost the school district a dime.

“No money from the district will ever be spent on the dog,” said Herzberger, who obtained sponsors for the dog.

The North Ridgeville Lions Club has offered a monthly stipend for the animal’s daily needs, and Animal Clinic Northview has offered to give the dog a lifetime of routine medical care free of charge.

As an additional fundraiser to cover travel expenses and supplies, Liberty Elementary will hold a garage sale Jan. 23.

Herzberger, who will be the primary caretaker of the dog once it arrives, applied for it through the nonprofit group Assistance Dogs of America Inc.

The organization trains young dogs, most of which are Labradors or Lab mixes, over a two-year period for a specific job. The group charges no fees for the dog besides an initial $25 application fee and a $100 to $125 equipment fee. ADAI estimates that each dog costs the organization $1,800 to train over two years.

“We’re currently second on the waiting list for a therapy dog,” said Herzberger, who hopes to meet the newest member of Liberty’s faculty by the end of this school year.

The average wait for a dog is 18 to 24 months.

“It took some time, but we’re lucky that the district has been very supportive,” Herzberger said. “Everybody’s on board.”

Contact Kaitlin Bushinski at 329-7155 or ctnews@chroniclet.com.