The Board of Education during its most recent meeting voted unanimously in favor of a policy designed to oversee a pilot program whereby a certified therapy dog can visit New Canaan Public Schools.
Led by a teacher who also is a trainer, the program has already seen a certified therapy dog visit South School once “and it was a big hit,” according to Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bryan Luizzi.
“And not only was it a big hit, it was a big dog—it’s a Newfoundland, hard to miss,” Luizzi said during the Board’s regular meeting, held Nov. 20 in the Wagner Room at New Canaan High School. “But it was wonderful. The kids loved it. The teachers loved it. And we’re starting slowly. We’re only doing about once a month to begin, just to give it a try. But if it works out, I think it’s something that could benefit all of our elementary schools. And even beyond. So this policy gives us the ability to do that.”
Board of Ed Chair Hugo Alves, Vice Chair Erica Schwedel, Secretary Matt Campbell and members Julie Toal, Brendan Hayes, Phil Hogan, Matt Wexler, Penny Rashin and Lara Kelly voted in favor of the new policy.
According to the NCPS website, that policy reads: “The New Canaan Public Schools permits the structured use of therapy dogs as a way to support the social-emotional health of students. Therapy dogs are permitted in school buildings and facilities only with appropriate certification and the express permission of the principal and superintendent, and only after written documentation is provided certifying that any such animal meets all conditions detailed in the NCPS regulation.”
The idea had been discussed at a prior Board of Ed meeting, and the vote followed a second reading of the policy.
Using certified therapy dogs in schools is increasingly common, Luizzi said. He underscored that the policy requires the express permission of the school’s principal as well as the district superintendent “so that we don’t turn around and find dogs everywhere.” The policy also was prepared in collaboration with the district’s attorneys and insurer, Luizzi said.
“And it very specifically runs through the certifications required, thinking through things such as the [vaccination] shots, allergies with students, the having an exit plan for the dog, knowing where it’s going to be throughout the course of the day—very specific in order to keep in mind what’s in the best interest of every individual child,” he said.
Board of Ed members asked where the Newfie comes from (the dog belongs to a friend of the NCPS staff member who’s trained as a handler), whether the dog meets the certifications required by the insurance company (yes), whether there’s a difference in potential liability with a dog brought in by staff versus a third-party company (the policy applies equally to both), whether dogs brought to the high school also would be required to undergo the certification (yes and generally speaking they already have) and whether parents will be notified (yes, with each scheduled visit).
Wexler asked for details of the metrics the district would use to measure the program’s success.
Luizzi said, “In convincing us to do it, the staff member brought forward a host of research that talks about the benefits of having therapy dogs, animals in a school. It does talk about helping students to regulate if they’re unregulated at different times throughout the day. It talks about helping students to feel included. So if you are reading in a classroom and there’s a dog present, there could be a student who’s a reluctant reader or others and the dog can serve as somebody that they can read to, things like that. I think that it’s brand new and emerging for us, as we look at it. But the feedback, it will be somewhat anecdotal, as we get feedback from our staff and from the families as we go through and have the experiences.”
The superintendent noted that NCPS has had certified therapy dogs in the schools before–for example, at NCHS during midterms and exams on a drop-in basis for students. The dog’s visits are highly structured and scheduled, Luizzi said.
“So we’ll know what classes the dog’s going to go visit, we’ll know the time period, all those parents will be contacted,” he said. “The kids will know the dogs coming so that it’s very controlled in that way. But as far as, do we continue to do this at a broader scale or not? I think once we get off the ground, we’ll be able to get a little more specific around that to determine is it a one and done or is it something that we want to think about doing at all three of our elementaries.”
Toal said she was “super excited about this initiative.”
“I think the South teacher who brought this dog in has brought a bunch of really cool things into South School,” she said. “And talking to people at South, I think we’re super lucky to have this teacher and I applaud her for bringing this to New Canaan.”