It’s lunch time on a Thursday, and four or five middle school students crowd around a big, round dog bed in the student counselor’s office on the third floor of the Secondary building. The focus of their attention is a light tan, Labrador-Sharpei mix with soulful brown eyes and a mellow disposition. Her name is Sweetie Pi, and she is ISLAND PACIFIC ACADEMY’s campus therapy dog.
Every Thursday, Sweetie Pi comes to campus and spends the day with the Secondary Student Support Counselor, Gerika Kaopua, as part of a pilot project started last October. The brainchild of Secondary math teacher (and Sweetie Pi’s owner/trainer), J.E. McEnerney, the project took flight when he approached Kaopua with the idea. Kaopua was excited about it as she had previous experience working with a therapy dog and saw, firsthand, the positive effects it had on the children she counseled.
More and more schools and universities are using therapy dogs as a way to provide social and emotional support for students. Research has shown that therapy dogs can provide many physical and emotional benefits. Simply petting a dog can lower blood pressure and heart rate, reduce levels of stress hormones, and increase levels of oxytocin. Physical contact with a therapy dog can reduce feelings of stress and anxiety, calming students and enabling them to focus on learning. Preliminary studies even show the presence of a therapy dog in the classroom can help students develop empathy and improve attitudes towards reading, which can affect literacy skills.
Interactions with therapy dogs also have beneficial effects on students’ social-emotional development. Dogs are loving, lovable companions and good listeners who don’t judge, making it easy for students to bond with them and feel connected and confident. Sweetie’s presence during counseling sessions helps students feel comfortable opening up and sharing their feelings, making it feel less awkward for them.
“A lot of students feel like she is listening to them and she’s non-judgmental. She’s very in tune with them, and when kids are down, she’ll just sit next to them quietly,” says Kaopua. “It reduces a lot of stress and anxiety and increases their feeling of being supported.”
Sweetie Pi has received extensive training and has been certified as an official therapy dog since 2016. She is approved to work in an emotional support capacity and wears an official blue vest with the therapy dog badge, embroidered with ‘please pet me’, from the American Kennel Club. “Sweetie is a good dog with a sweet and loving disposition,” explains McEnerney. “She is very clever and is eager to please, so she quickly learns the needs of the person working with her.”
ISLAND PACIFIC ACADEMY is not Sweetie Pi’s first job – she has worked at The Shriners Hospitals for Children in Honolulu, with the Ornish Lifestyle Medicine Program at Hawai’i Pacific Health, and with a senior’s karaoke group. “We’re continuing her training so she can expand her work with other organizations,” says McEnerney. “Her interactions with the students benefit her as well, expanding her training with teenagers.”
The results from the pilot project have shown many benefits for the students, and the school is assessing how to continue, and possibly expand, the program to the younger students.
“It’s a valuable program and kids are responding to it well,” says Kaopua. “They leave my office much happier after spending time with Sweetie, and they’ll say ‘Oh, I feel so much better. Less stressed, less tension’.”
For McEnerney, there is a personal satisfaction from sharing Sweetie Pi with the students. “The fact that all of them have great smiles on their faces when she is with them is highly satisfying,” shares McEnerney. “Sweetie also is exceptionally happy to be working here. She has a happy ‘tic’, and it brings me joy to see.”