Although our nonprofit is named “Pawsitivity Service Dogs,” we have also trained a therapy dog (pictured above) for a teacher who wanted to use him in her special education class. People often use the terms “therapy dog” and “Service Dog” interchangeably, but legally they are two very different things.
Definition of a Therapy Dog (as Compared to a Service Dog)
While a Service Dog is trained for an individual—and that individual must have a disability that rises to a level recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act—a therapy dog is trained to help all sorts of people and is usually owned by a handler who does not have a disability. Unlike a Service Dog, which can be brought into public places by their handler, a therapy dog doesn’t have any special rights to go into public places (because the handler doesn’t have a disability, and the dog is trained to help others rather than the handler). Originally called “pet therapy,” therapy dog work is sometimes described as “animal-assisted activities” or “animal-assisted therapy”.
The training for a therapy dog differs from that of a Service Dog. For a therapy dog, we need to make sure the dog is comfortable with lots of different people, whereas with a Service Dog we want them to focus on their handler. Both types of dogs need to be comfortable going into new places. Both dogs might wear a vest, but a therapy dog might not, especially if it’s going to be used for petting or cuddling. It takes the same time (and thus the same fundraising cost) to train a service dog as a therapy dog, but note that a therapy dog does not need to learn a specific task.
The Story of Mary and Olaf
A few years ago, Mary Ostmoe, an elementary school teacher, came to us with the idea of having us train a therapy dog for her classroom. She would keep the dog at home with her family in the evenings and then bring the dog to her elementary school Special Education class every day to help her students be calmer during their school days. We told her that we always recommend a two-hour maximum working time for dogs, and she said that stipulation would work fine for her classroom because the dog could stay in its kennel or doghouse in the classroom most of the time. She would just bring him out occasionally to work with the kids and keep it to less than two hours a day. We agreed that this process would work fine, and although it would mean more work for her in an average day, we all hoped that the dog would be so helpful that eventually, Mary’s workday would be easier, and the added work of bringing the dog out to potty and such would not be an onerous chore.
Mary raised the money from her community and didn’t have to put up any of her own money for the dog’s training. We trained a huge, gentle English Cream Golden Retriever for her named Olaf, and he graduated in October 2014.
The teachers at the Middle School loved Olaf so much that they asked him to be in their yearbook picture!
Mary brought Olaf to school every day, and the dog became wildly popular with all the children and teachers. Mary’s uncle built a special doghouse to be used in her classroom, but Olaf was so furry that he preferred a simple wire kennel that kept him much cooler. Mary keeps this kennel in the corner of her classroom, and Olaf rested there most of the time. Mary takes him out occasionally, up to two hours a day, to work with the children. The dog can be used as a reward for good behavior and as a tool for calming students down.
When two people are talking but are facing the same direction, the lack of eye contact can “stop what is for him or her a too intense interchange,” and thus the child gets calmer and becomes more comfortable talking about their feelings. Mary uses this “facing the same direction” technique when working with her students and Olaf. She’ll have the child face the dog and pet him while she looks at the dog rather than directly into the student’s face. The child’s cortisol level, heart rate, and blood pressure go down while the child is petting the dog,. When Mary encourages the student to talk about their feelings—for instance, when the child has started crying or is becoming angry and frustrated—the child relaxes enough to talk about their feelings and, thus, becomes calmer. The dog is happy to get the attention, and the three of them end up having a very positive relationship for that period of time. According to Mary, Olaf has turned out to be an invaluable tool.
The principal who was working at Mary’s school when she proposed the idea of a therapy dog was very supportive—in fact, the principal had actually proposed the idea herself! Unfortunately, by the time Olaf was actually selected, trained, and ready to start working, the school had a new principal. Fortunately, the new principal had an open mind, and now that Olaf is doing such a great job, the principal is not only 100% behind the idea, she is actually using the dog herself! When the principal gets a child in her office who is upset and causing trouble, sometimes she’ll say, “Well, why don’t we go down to Olaf’s classroom, and you can pet the dog, and we’ll talk about it.” Even a child who doesn’t have special needs is helped because the child calms down around the dog and is more likely to talk to the principal about their feelings. Olaf is helping the educators have a lot of breakthroughs with their students.
One example of a special-needs child who was helped by Mary and Olaf was a 13-year-old boy who was not toilet trained. Doctors had not diagnosed this student as having either an emotional or psychological problem with being toilet trained or with any physical reasons, so the teachers weren’t sure how to help the child. He was in danger of heading into high school without being toilet trained and would likely be shunned by his peers because of the absence of this life skill.
Mary started taking two daily walks with Olaf—from her classroom to the other end of the school and back. She would ask the student if he wanted to go with her and Olaf, with the stipulation that the child was willing to use the bathroom during that walk. Within one week, he was regularly using the bathroom on these walks and, thus, was toilet trained.
After that week, the child had no further problems with toilet training, either at home or at school. With the help of therapy dog Olaf, in one week this child transformed his future from that of possible ostracism to a life of mainstreaming, in many ways.
Olaf loves petting sessions so much that he sometimes falls asleep during it!
Mary has told us that she has many of these stories, but because of privacy concerns, she isn’t able to share all of them. She says the other stories are just as dramatic as this child’s story with Olaf. And she says that her classroom—which was previously known as the classroom full of students with Special Education needs—is now known as Olaf’s classroom. The kids in her class are considered kind of cool because they get to hang out with Olaf all the time.
Mary’s school takes great pride in this special therapy dog, which was exemplified in the annual school photo of all the teachers. Olaf was included in the photo as well, sitting obediently next to Mary and all the other teachers and administrators in the school. And even in the teachers’ section of the school yearbook, where each individual teacher gets their own headshot, Olaf got his own picture as well.
We’re incredibly proud and happy that this situation with Olaf has worked out so well. We hope other teachers will adopt the model that Mary has utilized so beautifully—of keeping the dog as a pet at home and using it as a therapy dog in school during the day—but we know most schools are resistant to the idea. It definitely takes a special teacher to commit to raising funds for training the dog, and then working with the dog to keep up its training. There’s a lot of red tape for a teacher to get the principal, the superintendent, the school board, and all of the parents on board, to get insurance and obtain permission to use the dog in this way, to deal with issues regarding allergies, etc. Mary had to go to a lot of meetings and convince a lot of people to support this idea, and we’re very impressed that she went through all this effort even before she contacted us to train a dog for her.
Special Education Teacher Mary Ostmoe: In Her Own Words
Mary was kind enough to write about some of her experiences with Olaf. She says her job is very stressful, “like being on the ground, a bit like combat.”
Increased Interactions with Other Students
“With Olaf, we can set up special needs kids to interact with the General Education kiddos, and it works wonderfully. We give the special needs kids canned questions to use, like 'Do you have a dog? What’s your dog’s name? How many dogs do you have?' The other kids then get started talking, and so we get back and forth, and then more back and forth. To see such interaction (which never happened before I started using Olaf)…it’s awesome.
“It’s hard for any 8th grader to have conversations with kids they don’t know, but with Olaf, the dog kind of just levels the playing field. I feel like we are so lucky.”
How The Process Began
“I've always loved dogs, and for years I've thought about using a therapy dog, and with one of my students, Brianna, we had talked about it for years and just how cool it would be. In the city of Maple Grove, Minnesota, they have therapy dogs at their school, but no teachers had ever worked with a therapy dog in my school district, in Elk River. My situation, which was somewhat unique, was that our special education director was very on board—when she was in the field, she had a therapy dog, and so I really lucked out with that support.
“And so I just started asking around, and I asked my principal first (and then she had to ask her superior with the school board). They asked me to write a paper that described all the obstacles to having a therapy dog in school, like dog allergies, and what a lawyer advised me after looking through the logistics of it all. The board read my letter, and it took a long time getting everything approved, but finally, I got the go ahead—and then I had to find [Pawsitivity] to do the finding and training of the dog, and only then the fundraising and grant-writing could get started.
“Since I was fundraising for a class, instead of just for one family who is getting a service dog for their child, I was able to get community groups to help. The ‘I Found’ foundation was very generous—they contributed $5,000, and the Lion's Club, too. Rogers Lion's Club donated $3,000, Elk River gave $1,000, and then Ramsey gave $1,000, too.”
The Two-Hour Rule
“It's been no problem having Olaf work less than two hours a day so he won't tire out. Even though I'm working a full day, he's in his kennel in the background resting and what have you most of the time. He comes out as a reward for the children when we go on two movement breaks.
“Also, sometimes the school counselors will call him in and myself, and then someone covers my class. My fellow teachers are all on board with this system and they'll say, ‘Yep, we’ll handle your class for a few minutes or whatever it takes.’ Like, we had a girl with really bad panic attacks and Olaf was the only thing that would calm her down. I mean, those panic attacks are really hard to see. They are real. She's in the regular classes, she's very bright, but anxiety and intelligence oftentimes go hand in hand.
“Sometimes my principal would like to use Olaf's services, and she'll come in and even take my class over while I go help regulate a child. And I’m there (as I always have to be—Olaf never goes without me).”
Fear of Dogs
“I used to wonder if there would be a problem of kids being afraid of the dog. For instance, there was one girl who was very scared, but she's good now. We worked with her on her fears, and she sees a psychiatrist. Now instead of avoiding Olaf, she now will come right up to him. The psychiatrist really wants her to come and see Olaf because now she really likes him. There have been other kids who have been afraid of him, and I try not to push him on anybody that doesn’t like dogs—for the most part, everyone just loves him.”
“There hasn't been any resistance at all from parents. When we start the year, we make sure everybody knows there’s dog in my classroom and ask them to let us know if they have a dog allergy. Surprisingly, I’ve had several kids with dog allergies that wanted to stay in my class. They like Olaf so much, and most dog allergies don't affect people much as long as you don’t touch them or if you’re not in a ton of their fur. He’s extremely popular, and it’s been a really, really neat experience.”
The Transition from Pawsitivity Training to Having the Dog Permanently
“Pawsitivity did such a great job with Olaf. He is such a well-mannered dog, so in the first few weeks when we just had him at home, we just had to get used to each other. When I got Olaf, he and I spent a lot of one-on-one time together to ensure that he bonded with me as his main person (even though summer was over and I was back at work during the day). I worked with him in the evenings and on weekends, and we followed [Pawsitivity's] instructions, too. Even the kids knew that everything Olaf got, he had to earn, and then we rewarded him with those little training treats. Non-food rewards were important, too. If you want to pet him (or he wants to be petted), make him sit first.
“Once I started bringing him to school, I almost felt like he was my service dog because at school he was always looking for me for indications of what to do. [Pawsitivity] trained him so nicely—if I stop, he stops; if I go, he goes. He’s really tuned.
“Here's a great example of how in-tune he is to me: At home, Olaf's our family dog.He listens to my husband, and my husband spends time with him and is out in the yard all the time with him. So when my husband started running a school program for English as a Second Language, my husband expected that Olaf would be the same way with him at school as he is at home. But no, when Olaf is at work, he's 100% paying attention to my needs. At school, Olaf would have nothing to do with him—wouldn’t listen to him, wouldn’t go with him.It’s all about me at school. Olaf's smart; he knows his job. It would so bug my husband, though. He would call Olaf, and at home, Olaf would come immediately, but not at school. I could tell Olaf to do anything at school and he would be so good.”
“It's wonderful how Olaf is so nonjudgmental since that is what a lot of kids need, it really is. And the kids can be affectionate with the dog and it's not ‘weird.’ Children on the autism spectrum often exhibit behaviors that other children are uncomfortable with, but Olaf doesn't care. Olaf loves getting affection, he really does. Even when he's not working, when he is at home, he wants to be petted all the time. He’s always coming up to one of the five of us in the family—he kind of makes the rounds. At school, when we do movement breaks, we take the lap around the school and a lot of times the General Ed kids are working in the hallway. Olaf just makes his way to one kid after another, like he's saying, ‘Pay attention to me, pay attention to me.’ There are now General Ed kids stopping by my room all the time—where that was not the case several years ago.
Olaf and Children with Special Needs
“This procedure gets my kids out of the classroom in these movement breaks, and with Olaf, now we are always out chatting with people.
“Here's a great example: One student has difficulty communicating (people can't understand his words), and our speech therapist came up with a great solution. For these interactions with other kids, he has a communication device, and he's got it all programmed to talk about Olaf—because General Ed kids are always willing to talk to him if it's about Olaf! He's got his device now, and he and the Gen Ed kids will talk back and forth about Olaf, and then he can ask, ‘Do you have a dog?’ and ‘What’s your dog’s name?’ He just loves Olaf. So now he can go to the Gen Ed kids and do this back and forth with his communication device with Olaf right there. While kids are petting him, they are going back and forth. He can press a button on his iPad, and then the computer voice will answer. The dog is just such an easy thing to relate about.”
Reward for Reading
“Kids love reading to Olaf, and he loves it, too. It won't take long at all and pretty soon all the kids are crawling up…just to listen to the other kids reading to him! It is wonderful. While we do have one school in our district that has reading dogs come in sometimes for struggling readers, it's only the only school I know that does it. It's good news to hear that there are schools lightening up a little bit about having therapy dogs in school.”
Olaf Loves Working
“We're so happy that Olaf loves going to school. He jumps right into the van each morning, and when I park and we walk through the parking lot he stays right by me. We go right in, and when we get to the classroom he goes right into his kennel (and we give him his treat), and we start our day. It's wound up not making my job harder at all, but very much more effective—and it’s more fun. The kids love Olaf, and it’s fun to see kids happy.”
“I have had coworkers who had a tough day come in and have a petting session with Olaf.
“With the students, Olaf’s goal is to reset the children (to regulate them and get them back to class). Oftentimes, what shocks me is that they want Olaf to walk them back to class! I would have thought, ‘Oh, the mainstreamed students don’t want to stand out,’ but no… I’ve had at least two boys with Asperger's come to me, and we hash it out with Olaf. They pet Olaf, and then Olaf walks them all the way back to their desk in their Gen Ed classroom!”
If you are interested in a Pawsitivity therapy dog (as opposed to a service dog), we hope the above is helpful!
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 Alvarez, Anne. "Addressing the element of deficit in children with autism: Psychotherapy which is both psychoanalytically and developmentally informed." Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry 1, no. 4 (1996): 525-537.
 Polheber, John P., and Robert L. Matchock. "The presence of a dog attenuates cortisol and heart rate in the Trier Social Stress Test compared to human friends." Journal of Behavioral Medicine 37, no. 5 (2014): 860-867.
 LaFrance, Caroline, Linda J. Garcia, and Julianne Labreche. "The effect of a therapy dog on the communication skills of an adult with aphasia." Journal of Communication Disorders 40, no. 3 (2007): 215-224.