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Lawmakers Hope For More Therapy Dogs

A bill in New Jersey would help increase the number of therapy dogs in the state’s elementary schools.
An adult and five young children sit on a rug with a large dog that is wearing a yellow vest.
Natalie Kolb—MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle/Getty Images

This 2016 photo shows elementary school students spending time with a therapy dog.

Schools in New Jersey may soon be playing host to some new, four-legged visitors. The state legislature is considering a bill to help bring more therapy dogs into public elementary schools.

The bill is bipartisan, meaning that it has support from both a Democratic and a Republican lawmaker. If passed, the bill would allow the New Jersey Department of Education to pick two school districts in each of the state’s three regions—northern, central, and southern New Jersey—for a three-year pilot (test) program. During this time, officials would study the effect of the program on students’ mental health and academic performance.

“[If the results are positive], then we hope we’ll be able to allow this program to be part of the curriculum and work throughout the state of New Jersey for every school district,” state senator Anthony Bucco, a Republican, told PIX11 News. Bucco is sponsoring the bill with Democratic state senator James Beach.

School therapy dogs are already used in many states, at the elementary school level all the way up through college. Researchers have evidence that spending time with animals can reduce levels of cortisol, a chemical the body produces in response to stress. Therapy dogs might also help students improve their academic performance.

“Research demonstrates that the use of therapy dogs in a school setting can improve confidence, motivation, and even school attendance,” Senator Beach said in a statement. 

Did You Know?

The first recognized therapy dog was a Yorkshire terrier named Smoky, who served during World War II. After she was discovered in a foxhole on the Pacific Island of New Guinea by Corporal Bill Wynne, Smoky became a valuable canine soldier, helping on construction projects as a digger and warning her unit of impending danger. Accompanied by Corporal Wynne, Smoky also visited sick and wounded soldiers in hospitals. Wynne said he believed Smoky gave many soldiers the motivation they needed to recuperate.
A sculpture of a Yorkshire terrier with a tag reading Smoky sitting in a military helmet.
bertknot (CC BY-SA 2.0)
This sculpture of Smoky is located outside Australia’s Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, where the little dog once visited wounded soldiers.

Canine Counselors

A golden retriever sits at a table with a student in a classroom.
Daniel Roland—AFP/Getty Images

Why are dogs said to be ideal therapy animals? Here are just a few reasons.

They’re good listeners. Experts say spending time with dogs, which are social animals but also attentive to people, can help students improve their social skills.

They can motivate people. Students may be more motivated to come to school if they can spend time with a therapy dog.

They’re not judgmental. Wrong answers and other challenges are part of learning. Experts believe students may feel more confident practicing difficult skills in front of a dog.

They lower stress. Studies show that spending time with animals can decrease cortisol, a chemical the body produces when it’s stressed. And experts say stress can affect a person’s ability to learn.

They improve people’s moods. Experts say the presence of a dog can bring lightness and humor into a classroom, which can help students cope with anxiety disorders.

Animal Secrets

© Khlongwangchao—Creatas Video/Getty Images
Have you ever wondered why an ant works constantly without taking a break or how birds seem to know when to migrate? Some scientists dedicate their careers to studying animal behavior. You can read more about our knowledge of animal behavior, and what we still don’t know, at Britannica.

WORD OF THE DAY

gregarious

PART OF SPEECH:
adjective
Definition:
: enjoying the company of other people
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