Even though it was Monday morning, some special visitors to South Fayette High School had everyone smiling.
Rottweillers Josey and Jury, toy poodle Karma, Chihuahua Gigi and Obi Wan – he’s a big, cuddly cross between a golden retrieve and poodle – arrived at the school by invitation from a group of students taking Advanced Placement English.
“They had approached me with the idea of bringing in therapy dogs during the week of finals to help alleviate some stress and bring some positivity to our students,” co-principal Laura Hartzell said. “I’ve worked with the group of students to organize the signups and make sure that students have permission slips to be able to visit with the dogs.”
The AP group, which organized the activity as a class project, spread the word sufficiently so 87 students signed up for the opportunity.
“The project was supposed to be centered around solving some form of inequality in the school system, so a lot of students touched on issues regarding race or socioeconomic inequality,” senior Zora Mosley said. “But we wanted to talk about intellectual inequality and how stress, anxiety, different mental conditions like that can affect student learning.”
Because seniors already finished classes in anticipation of commencement June 7, Mosley was at the school Monday on a volunteer basis. The folks who brought the dogs, through Westmoreland County Obedience Training Club, also are volunteers.
The Delmont-based nonprofit’s Thera-Paws program helps brighten the days for people in hospitals, special-needs facilities, senior centers and other locations.
“A lot of the activities that we do are in schools,” said Hollee Russell, the volunteer who coordinated the South Fayette visit. “With some colleges, we do stress-buster events before finals, and in high schools they’re starting to do the same thing.”
The canine visitors serve other purposes, too.
“Younger students will read to the dogs. It helps relax them,” Russell said. “They can pet the dog as they read, and then it builds their confidence reading out loud.”
Participating Thera-Paws canines are registered with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, a national organization that provides testing, certification, registration, support and insurance for members. The pooches come in all sizes and breeds, according to Russell, who owns the Rottweiler, Josey.
“It’s based on the temperament of the dog,” she said. “They have to be willing to be touched and petted. They have to be good around people who might shake a little bit, if they have a medical issue.”
She also is a team member for Crisis Response Canines, which provides dogs throughout the nation when needed.
“These dogs actually deploy. They came into Pittsburgh after the synagogue shooting. We have six team members in Virginia Beach right now,” Russell said about the Tree of Life Synagogue murders in October and the May 31 killing of 12.
In contrast, she noted, was the simple spreading of joy to start finals week at South Fayette.
“This is the positive side,” Russell said.