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Humane Hearts program pairs kids and dogs
Lilly Griffith, 9, makes a face at Ruger, a Great Dane therapy dog at Coal Mountain Elementary school.

Walking into the classroom at Coal Mountain Elementary School, Lilly Griffith immediately fixed her attention on Ruger, her strawberry-blonde braid bouncing as she approached the Great Dane.

Though the dog was nearly four times the size of the 9-year-old, his face was far from menacing, a curious look in his eyes as he took in the little girl standing before him.

“Can you give him a hug?” Humane Hearts Pet Therapy volunteer Tammy Gazafy asked Griffith, who was making a face at the dog. As she complied with Gazafy’s request, smiles spread across the faces of the special education teachers in the room, whose students surrounded the three therapy dogs.

Madison, a Golden Retriever therapy dog, places her paw on a first grader in his classroom at Coal Mountain Elementary school.

Though the children in the special education program aren’t the only students who benefit from the Humane Society of Forsyth County’s pet therapy program, Deana Brown, one of Coal Mountain’s counselors, said the benefit to that particular population is almost immediately evident.

“I was involved in bringing the program to Settles Bridge [elementary] a while back and I knew I had such a great, supportive administration here that it [would work],” Brown said. “We really saw an incredible benefit, especially with our special needs populations; they become more articulate and they increase their literacy skills. One boy, Logan, the very first word I heard him say was ‘doggie’ and since then, he’s spoken more. You can just see how excited he gets around the dogs.”

That excitement was apparent in all of the classrooms the Humane Hearts volunteers recently visited, something Director Bea Wilson said she often sees.

In 2016, Humane Hearts therapy animals recorded:

- 13 elementary schools visited

- 10 assisted living home visited

- 5 “Paws to Read” library programs

- 5 high schools visited

- 4 middle schools visited

By the end of 2017, Wilson’s 60 volunteer teams will have made about 900 visits to schools, assisted living homes, libraries, hospice centers and more across the county, up from 460 visits in 2016.

The program, which stresses community outreach, relies on volunteers who own therapy animals – or animals that can be trained as therapy pets – to provide emotional and physical support to the program’s clients.

The support, especially in schools, is exponential, said Coal Mountain Principal Kimberly Davis.

“The students sit and read to the dogs, some of [the students] who may be very shy,” she said. “It gives them someone who will give them undivided attention and doesn’t make them nervous. The [dogs] help work on students’ social-emotional skills also, and we spend a lot of time in our school, and in Forsyth County in general, focusing on personalizing our learning for our students, so this is a great way to actually do that. It’s fun because they get to see all different sizes [of dogs] and it represents all the students that we have.”

Davis added while many people often think therapy pets mostly focus on specialized instruction classrooms, by having the program in the school, “it really reaches all of our students and it gives them something else to communicate with.”

Diane Collins’ first grade class poses with three therapy dogs.

She said that oftentimes, students get to know one dog through multiple visits every month, so they form a special connection.

“It can also be scary, for some adults, to interact with dogs because of a bad experience or something they experienced, so therefore there can be the fear of, ‘what if that happens to my child?’ But they’re very docile animals and it definitely benefits the children.”

The animals – in this case, a Golden Retriever, a Shih Tzu and Great Dane – also clearly love the children, which Brown said ultimately increases student attendance and class participation.

“[This year,] we’ve targeted students who missed six or more days of school [last year] to work with the dogs, and so far, we’ve seen a significant increase in student attendance,” she said. “Having the dogs here makes them want to come, and most of the kids in our target population come from difficult backgrounds that may not have focused on education previously, but now they want to engage.”

Second grade teacher Kathryn Aylor said she’s seen firsthand how the program’s benefits her students.

“I think the biggest thing is an increase in confidence,” she said. “A lot of these kids lack confidence in their reading and learning, and just to be able to do it in a different setting that just brings [the confidence] out. We also have students that don’t have pets and don’t have experience with animals, so them being able to have that exposure in a safe environment has been a great thing.”

Aylor added the benefits are two-fold: the students improve their academics while maturing socially and emotionally.

“Some students are going to benefit more from the academic side with their confidence with reading and their reading fluidity, and then there are kids who are going to benefit from the social growth and emotional needs,” she said. “I think it’s a great program and a good balance of both, depending on the child.”