Therapy Dog Provides Comfort, Literacy Skills at Sunnyland

Each day, Sukha greets children as they arrive at Sunnyland Elementary School. On the day we visited, it was his second birthday, but he is 14 in dog years.

“He really loves kids,” says his handler, principal Lynn Heimsoth. “He would choose a kid over an adult any day. After a three-day weekend he is so excited to be back at school.”

Throughout the day, students come down to Heimsoth’s office to read to Sukha and practice their literacy skills. One student has trained Sukha to read and respond to flashcards with commands including sit, down, beg and crawl. Students also learn leadership by taking on responsibilities such as feeding and brushing him.

“I think it makes kids happier,” says student Liza Jane Price. “He helps with feelings.”

Sukha is a trained and certified therapy dog through Pet Partners. To be certified, dogs must pass a good citizen test, have a relaxed temperament and complete obedience training. Then, the dog and its handler are evaluated together.

“Sukha provides something that we can’t – unconditional love,” says Heimsoth. Specifically, Sukha has helped Heimsoth connect with families including those who speak languages other than English, “Having Sukha around puts families on equal footing, and helps them feel comfortable approaching their principal.”

On the days when he is outside during recess, children often take turns throwing the ball for him and recess monitors say they encounter less behavioral issues.

He helps redirect students if they are having trouble making good choices or need to calm down. For example, a student may say they want to leave campus. “I can say, ‘Sukha needs to get to my office, can you help him get there?’” says Heimsoth. The student inevitably helps return the dog to the principal’s office, spends some time petting Sukha and may feel ready to talk.

What about allergies? Heimsoth spoke with the parents of students with allergies, and if those students needs to meet with her they find another place to meet other than her office.

So far, they have received very positive feedback since Sukha joined the Sunnyland team last fall. Happy Birthday, Sukha!

Comments (2)

  1. Ann Swarens

    2 months ago

    I apsolutely support having therapy dogs in all the schools. Even bunnies or cats would be fine with me too. Thank you for thinking outside the box and creating an environment where children can open up and relax. Studies show that kids and adults respond better to animals than humans when they are stressed, shy or struggling with a learning dissability. I encourage your staff to continue this journey and include animals in your curriculum whenever possible.

    Thank You!
    Ann Swarens ( mother of a 11 and 14 year old)

  2. marilyn dunne

    2 months ago

    I am happy to help facilitate MORE therapy dogs in more schools!! As a person who evaluates and registers therapy dog teams and facilitates placement in our community through Pet Partners and liasons with Whatcom Therapy Dogs program managers!
    We have been in most BSD schools over the past 20 years in big and small ways ( Life Skills, BD classrooms, reading , crisis intervention) yet school administrators often still have legitimate concerns
    We can work to address these to your satisfaction!!

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