Dr. Mary DiBenedetto’s creative “wheels” are always turning, so when the J. Taylor Finley Middle School psychologist heard from her colleagues at a state conference in Syracuse about the beneficial use of therapy dogs in their schools she perked up.
“Immediately I texted my principal saying ‘you are going to regret sending me here; we need to have a therapy dog at Finley,’” Dr. DiBenedetto said. “Mrs. [Traci] Roethel replied ‘YES…I love dogs…I’m all in.’”
Once she had returned to Huntington, Dr. DiBenedetto spoke with Superintendent James W. Polansky and learned he, too, loves dogs and his own dog was training to be a therapy dog. “He was ‘all in,’” she recalled. “I also wrote up a presentation/letter for the board of education. It took several months to find out all the information needed in order to get a therapy dog in a school, including contracts, health requirements, consent forms, insurance, etc. We found a great agency and after many emails and phone calls back and forth, we landed with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs.”
A short time later, dog handlers reached out to Dr. DiBenedetto to indicate they were interested in participating in the initiative. “That’s how we got our ‘Tuesdays with Charlie’ and ‘Diesel Fridays,’” she said. “They are the best boys ever! They immediately bring smiles to not only our students, but also all staff. Children are always stopping me asking, ‘When is Charlie coming?’ or ‘Will Diesel visit our room?’”
Dr. DiBenedetto works with Finley teachers Krista Fee, Amy Hughes, Jen Vetterato and Kim Finneran on a weekly basis as the dogs visit their classrooms. “The teachers decide how best to work with Charlie and Diesel,” Dr. DiBendetto said. “Some have them in groups sitting on blankets on the floor and students reading to them. Others are in slightly larger groups and break into small groups working with the ‘boys.’ Sometimes the kids just want to pet and have discussions. Other times the ‘boys’ enjoy hearing the students just read to them. We have them in a math class, too, and the kids take turns doing problems and explaining them aloud to their group and Charlie!”
Dr. DiBenedetto said studies have shown that therapy dogs decrease students’ overall stress levels. “Reading aloud to a therapy dog and their handler increases children’s scores on tests of oral reading fluency, much more than reading aloud to peers,” she said. “Student’s overall attendance improves when there is an in-house therapy dog. Improved concentration, attention, motivation and relaxation, which lead to effective learning and performance have been noted.”