By Sue Botos
It’s been proven that being around animals can make hospital patients and nursing home residents feel better and less anxious. More recently, four-legged therapists have made their way to colleges, putting students, faced with the daunting task of test-taking, at ease.
Members of the Magnificat High School Animal Lovers Club took this information to heart, and felt some furry visitors could ease the strain of semester final exams. So, on Jan. 16 and 17, the students arranged for “dog therapy sessions” prior to testing with six certified therapy dogs on-site from 7:30 to 8:20 a.m. offering up tail-wagging, cold-nosed support.
Ranging in size from giant Irish wolfhound Maggie May to toy Yorkie-Pomeranian Olivia, the dogs met with any interested students in the school’s large-group instruction (LGI) room before testing began.
“It was the most wonderful experience. The girls came in giggling and happy. Not once did I hear any talk of finals,” commented Liz Kitel, who brought in her family’s standard poodle Penny. Her daughter Meredith, along with fellow Animal Lovers Club member Erin Sheehan, researched and presented the idea for the dogs’ visit to the Magnificat Leadership Team, which approved the event.
All of the dogs and handlers present were certified, and Liz Kitel explained that the process is not easy. She said that a dog first must be trained in the basic commands, such as “sit” and “stay,” and also have a calm temperament. “They have to be totally neutral, even around other dogs,” she commented.
Kitel went through the six-week therapy dog training course at K-9 University in Bedford with Penny, and of the 12 dogs in the class, the standard poodle was the only one to pass the final exam. “Not all dogs are suited,” she stated.
Meredith Kitel said she has accompanied her mother and Penny on hospital visits. She said that Case Western Reserve University and John Carroll University in Cleveland have made therapy dogs available to students at exam time.
“We’re unique in that we’re the only local high school doing this,” she commented.
The pilot program seemed to be a success. About 20 students surrounded Maggie May at one point, while others scooped up the smaller dogs. “Everyone was happy and relaxed,” said Liz Kitel, noting the enthusiastic good-byes from students as the dogs and owners walked through the cafeteria on their way out.
Erin Sheehan noted that she did feel calmer after visiting with the dogs.
According to Animal Lovers Club moderator Karen Uthe Semancik, whose dog Sam was part of the therapy team, there is already a waiting list of dogs and owners who want to be considered for spring finals. “It was a wonderful experience for all involved. The Animal Lovers Club gained knowledge about coordinating an event, the students who attended went into their exams (less) stressed and the dogs and their handlers enjoyed a morning of making people smile. Our club thanks the Magnificat administration for allowing us to bring this pilot project to the Magnificat community. We hope to make it a new tradition,” she stated.