BY PAUL LEIGHTON
---- — BEVERLY — When Cove Elementary School teacher Jennifer Bent visited a residential home for children, she couldn’t help but notice the calming influence of a black Labrador retriever in the house.
“I saw how the dog interacted with the children and how the children interacted with the dog, and was blown away,” she said.
As a special education teacher, Bent began wondering if a well-trained dog could perform a similar service for students at the Cove School.
Toward that goal, the school has embarked on a campaign to raise $9,500 to buy a therapeutic service dog from National Education for Assistance Dog Services.
The dog would live with Bent and work every day with students at the Cove, which houses a district-wide program for children with autism and another for students with social, emotional and behavioral challenges.
“The kids are really excited to be a part of it,” Bent said.
Having a service dog as part of a school’s daily routine encourages respect, responsibility and empathy among students, Bent said, and decreases anxiety around school work.
She pointed to two studies in USA Anthrozoos, which publishes studies on the interactions of people and animals, that said the presence of a service dog improved social interactions and decreased negative behavior among students with emotional disorders.
Bent said a service dog could greet a student who is anxious about going to school and walk to class with the student. Students who have trouble initiating conversation could use the dog as a starting point for speaking with other children.
Bent said students who have suffered emotional or physical trauma might be more likely to share things with a dog rather than people, so they could write a note to the dog and stick it in its backpack.
Cove School Principal Lisa Oliver called Bent’s idea for a service dog “fantastic.”
“There’s been a rise in social/emotional issues in this district and in other districts. This is one way to be proactive,” Oliver said. “Jenn’s really passionate about it.”
Oliver said a service dog would benefit all students in the school, not just those in special education programs. Bent said the dog could be used as a motivator, with a class getting a visit from the dog as a reward for good behavior or academic performance.
“As the whole process has evolved, we really want it to be an opportunity for all children and not just the children who face challenges,” Oliver said.
John Moon, director of programs and communications for National Education for Assistance Dog Services, said more schools have been incorporating service dogs as classrooms have become more inclusive. The organization has placed service dogs in 12 schools throughout the Northeast over the last three years, he said.
“A lot of teachers are using the dog as a learning device,” Moon said. “For a student with reading challenges, it’s a lot easier to read to a dog. A dog’s not going to be critical or laugh when a word is mispronounced.”
Moon said the organization has a waiting list of 70 people looking for assistance dogs, ranging from combat veterans to children with a physical disability to people who are deaf.
He said it’s important to find the right match between the dog and the client. Black or yellow labs often make the best classroom dogs, he said.
“You’ve got to have a dog that’s very calm and very patient,” he said.
The Cove School must raise the money to purchase a trained dog from National Education for Assistance Dog Services, a nonprofit that provides assistance dogs. Bent said the cost to NEADS for a dog is $25,000, but the organization requires only a one-time fee of $9,500 from their clients.
The school is seeking to raise the money through grants and donations. The Cove’s fifth-grade student council started a “Paws for a Cause” fund-raising campaign in which students and families can buy a “dog paw” for $1.
As the person who will become the dog’s owner, Bent will undergo a week of training at the NEADS campus in Princeton, Mass. The dog will live with Bent, who lives in Amesbury with her husband and five children.
“It’s a pretty big responsibility,” she said. “The dog will work during the day, and just like humans it will need down time and to feel part of a family.”
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or email@example.com.