"Dogs love unconditionally," says Sally Wilson. "Just pet them, and they are your friends for life. They don't care if you are wearing the latest styles, if your clothes are clean or if your shoes match. Especially with a child, sometimes putting feelings into words can be extremely difficult or there might be a language barrier. With a therapy dog, words are not needed."
Dare, Katy and Allie are the rock stars of volunteers at Jefferson Elementary School in Wichita, Kansas. Children call out their names when they walk down the halls. Hands reach out to touch them.
The three furry friends visit the school every week. Wilson brings Dare, a black Labrador, and Jeanne Forbes brings Katy and Allie, mini Labradoodles. Wilson and Forbes, members of East Heights United Methodist Church, a congregation of 340, gather with their dogs and the children in a classroom at lunchtime. After the children eat lunch, they hug and play with the dogs, roll on the floor with them and get silly together.
The children, who named themselves the Paws Group in honor of their four-footed friends, are quick to tell you what they love about the dogs.
Kennya likes their "bushy fur," and Mario thinks they are quite smart. "They're cute and like to play," Leslie said. "I like to pet Dare," adds Scott. "He's soft."
The dogs help the children calm themselves, and the children share their secrets with the dogs. Some of the students have dealt with major disappointments and trauma, and they seem to feel safe telling the dogs what they are feeling.
"I enjoy seeing how the dogs can change people's lives," Forbes says. "They are more relaxed."
Dare, Katy and Allie are all licensed therapy dogs, Wilson says. "They have completed a test showing that they are well-mannered, follow commands of their handler and are not stressed in various situations in a public setting."
A retired special education teacher, Wilson saw firsthand the benefits of having a therapy dog in the classroom. "The dog was able to provide comfort and support to many children where a person might not be able to do so," Wilson explains. "For some reason, the students could easily relate to the dog. When the Jefferson counselor approached me about starting this program, I was thrilled to have the chance to share Dare.
"The children are always very excited to see and interact with the dogs. For this coming year, we hope to incorporate academic skills with the dog visitation."
Adapted from an article by Kathy Lefler, a member of East Heights United Methodist Church, Wichita, Kansas. Portions of this story originally appeared on the Great Plains Annual Conference website, www.greatplainsumc.org, Feb. 6, 2015.
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