Sunny, a 5-year-old yellow Lab, wagged her tail and chomped on a rubber ball as she greeted preschoolers and kindergartners entering the music classroom at Alberton School District on Tuesday.
Sunny is the school’s resident therapy dog and she comes to work every day with her best friend and school music teacher, Mike Wolfe.
“When I play, you can move around the room and try to make your bodies move like the music,” Wolfe told the students as he picked up his guitar.
Wolfe began strumming as the kids moved throughout the room. He picked up the tempo and the students ran in circles. Sunny took her cue to join in, prancing among the kids, shaking her head back and forth and wiggling her torso.
Picking up on the emotions of the students is an inherent part of Sunny’s job as a therapy dog.
Sunny’s schedule varies day by day. Sometimes she dances with kids in music classes, sometimes she sits quietly on her dog bed, and sometimes she visits the counselor’s office to calm a student who is stressed or upset.
“She kind of goes where she’s needed,” Wolfe said. “We’ve had students that are super-triggered and having emotional problems and things like that and I'll get a call from the office saying, ‘Hey, can Sunny come over here?’ A kid can be losing their mind and then introduce Sunny the dog and it just calms things down.”
Kara Berg, the school counselor, said she brings Sunny into the office when she works with students in crisis. “They’ll pet her as we’re talking and it helps them to process things,” Berg said.
Mica Clarkson, the school’s principal, said that Sunny can be used for good incentives in addition to helping de-escalate situations where students are upset.
“We can be like ‘Hey, if you make good choices, you can come walk the dog with me later,’” Clarkson said.
This is only Sunny’s second year at Alberton and she has already become an integral part of the school, even earning herself a spot in the yearbook alongside teachers and administrators in the staff section.
Getting everyone on board with Sunny’s presence wasn’t easy, though. Wolfe said he faced a lot of initial roadblocks when he proposed the idea.
“It’s just not a conventional thing,” Wolfe said, adding that some school board members and lawyers were difficult to convince.
“They were like, ‘What if kids are allergic? What if kids are scared of dogs?’ and I was just like, ‘What if the benefits of having a therapy dog outweigh all of those things?’” Wolfe said.
Eventually, the school board said yes and Wolfe enrolled Sunny in classes at Wind River Tails and Trails, a business in Florence that offers dog training.
“It was a personal investment, it was a financial investment, it was a time investment,” Wolfe said.
Wolfe and Sunny worked with Ally Cowan, a trainer for the company who specializes in service dogs but started training therapy dogs after receiving requests. Cowan said people often confuse therapy, service and emotional support dogs.
Cowen said service dogs are for people with disabilities and the dogs are considered medical equipment. “Service dogs are trained to do something like alert with someone who has low blood sugar or guide someone if they’re blind,” Cowen said.
Therapy dogs, on the other hand, are essentially friendly pets who are trained to stay calm as they visit with people, often for the purpose of providing joy and stress relief.
There are also emotional support dogs, which provide support to one person with a mental or emotional disability. Emotional support dogs aren’t required to go through training.
Cowen said there is often confusion over where these dogs are allowed. She said service dogs can go anywhere, whereas therapy dogs like Sunny can only go places upon invitation. Emotional support dogs are supposed to stay home with their owners.
In order to begin training therapy dogs, dogs must go through a personality and temperament test.
“We look at things like startle and pinch tests to see if the dog is going to be safe,” Cowen said. “If somebody steps on them, are they going to jump on them or go away? It’s about seeing how they react before they think.”
The dogs have to be OK with anyone petting them and must be able to look to their handlers when they are uncomfortable.
Cowen also considers how friendly each dog is to make sure they want to do the job. “If they don’t like being social, that’s not fair to the dog,” she said.
After Cowen has made sure the dog is safe and enjoys being around others, she teaches manners and obedience training and then gives them a final exam in the form of a supervised visit. For Sunny’s test, Cowen arranged a visit to the school where they walked through all the classrooms.
Cowen said she’s seen an uptick in education professionals reaching out to her to train therapy dogs for the classroom.
Research on the effectiveness of therapy dogs is still in its infancy but Cowen said she thinks the dogs are making an impact.
“The proof is in the actions of the students,” she said, citing a recent example where teachers at a Missoula school had difficulty calming down a student who was having a meltdown because he didn’t want to go to class. Staff called on their therapy dog, who snuggled up to the student and calmed him down to the point of being able to escort him to class without a fight.
“Kids open up to dogs when they won’t open up to a counselor,” Cowen said.
Wolfe said Sunny has become attached to the students at Alberton and the feeling seems to be mutual.
“All the students love her,” said Kristina Solinger, a senior at Alberton. “All the students here really like dogs and animals. Not everyone likes school a whole lot, but they like Sunny.”
Solinger said seeing Sunny at choir practice always brightens her day, especially if she’s feeling down. “Sometimes I'm sad and I can just pet her and I'm not sad anymore,” Solinger said.
Sunny stays busy at Alberton, and Wolfe said she’s exhausted at the end of the day but she still has plenty of time for play outside of school.
“She knows when she’s at work and she acts differently when we’re at home,” Wolfe said. “When we go hiking and stuff, she's like, ‘Yeah, my whole obedience thing is out the window. I’m on vacation.’”