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Fairview Elementary goes to the dogs
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Dozens of scientific reports point to the ability of dogs to help those struggling with depression and anxiety.

Teachers and students at Fairview Elementary School are using two companion animals - Sugar and Bear - to encourage shy readers to read aloud, to foster social skills within autistic students, to motivate children to exercise and provide incentives for good behavior.

Nina Henderson, pre-K coordinator at Fairview Elementary, has rescued animals from shelters for eight years bringing them out to her farm in Rutledge. At times Henderson has housed as many as 15 dogs on her property.

Certain dogs displayed such friendly, relaxed qualities it caused Henderson to look into therapy dog training and certification.

"It's one of the things I've been very interested in this past year by doing research and talking about it with others," Henderson said.

When a loving, quiet yellow Labrador retriever came into her life, Henderson decided to have her assessed for work as a therapy dog.

"It's one of the things I've been very interested in this past year by doing research and talking about it with others," Henderson said.

Because Sugar passed her assessment, Companion Animal Rescue Inc. and the Morgan County Human Society sponsored her adoption and some of her medical bills.

Fairview Principal Holly Dubois agreed to have Sugar come to the school and work with special needs students and as a reading coach. Dubois liked the idea so much she decided to bring her 3- to 4-year-old black Labrador retriever, Bear, to school as well.

"Anybody can ask for access to Bear or Sugar," Dubois said. "It's like checking out a library book."

On a typical day at work, Sugar and Bear will sit in special needs classrooms with autistic children to support engagement in language - a major goal of teachers of autistic students.

"They will talk to a dog before they will talk to a human," Dubois said.

Not only will autistic students vocalize thoughts or feelings around four-legged friends they also exercise by taking them for walks around the school.

Regular education students also benefit from the cardiovascular workouts provided by tossing flying discs and balls to the retrievers - famous for chasing anything that moves.

Children with anger issues calm down after Dubois requests they take Sugar or Bear on a walk.

"The second benefit is they are showing care and compassion toward an animal," Dubois said, "and we're hoping they will eventually be able to show care and compassion toward humans."

Children also feel more confident around the dogs.

"Even though they're not their pet, it gives them a sense of ownership and pride," Dubois said.

Students apprehensive about reading aloud are also more confident with the dogs.

"They're not going to laugh or say you messed up a word," Dubois said. "That's such a confidence builder. Or, if a student doesn't like to read period, they will if they can just sit by that dog."

Students at Fairview who may not have family pets are learning not to fear dogs, but that they should be approached in a certain way, never approached if they are unknown to the child and owners must always be asked before their animal is petted.

"There are just ton of fringe benefits," Dubois said.

Henderson said when students feel Sugar and Bear's well-groomed coat or see them obey a command, they may go home and brush their dog's coat out or try to teach him or her to sit.

"A great part of being in rescue is you get that trickle down effect," Henderson said.

Henderson explained how she would like "dog time" to become a reward for passing a certain number of Accelerated Reader tests.

Both Dubois and Henderson admit they haven't reinvented the wheel with the idea of therapy dogs in schools, but rather copied what other schools around the country were doing.

However, they said the new additions to Fairview have certainly positively affected students and provided incentive for young minds to come to school ready to follow directions, behave well and learn.