Kerri Harris hadn't planned on introducing the idea of having a therapy dog visit Arlington Elementary School until she could do more research this summer.
But, thanks to some snow days this year, the elementary counselor was able to jump-start her plan.
"I spent a couple of those snow days doing research," Harris said.
She then discussed her plan with Linda Petricek, a certified dog handler, who had offered her services to Harris last summer.
"With that extra time, we were able to figure out that she could at least introduce the dog this year and then hit the ground running in the fall and have her come for various purposes," Harris said.
Petricek and her dog, Pepsi, will visit the school Wednesday during recess and possibly walk through for additional introductions.
The duo also plans to visit May 14 and possibly another time before summer vacation. Petricek, a retired special education teacher, lives in Valley and is certified through the Love on a Leash program. Pepsi is a golden retriever mix. Petricek is volunteering her services, so the school won't pay for the service, Harris said.
Starting in the fall, the plan will be to have the dog visit the school once a week as part of a pilot program.
"Pepsi will be here for a trial run for us to know and be confident that it is a good idea," Harris said.
Pepsi will be used mainly to help students with their reading skills.
According to research, Harris said reading aloud to dogs helps students improve their oral reading fluency better than reading to a peer or adult.
"There are so many kids that struggle," she said. "It would help them become more comfortable with reading and allow them to practice reading and make it fun to practice reading," Harris said.
While the main focus will be reading, Harris said, if the dog is available, he can also provide emotional support.
"As a counselor, I play catch with kids to get them to relax and the dog can be another way for them to settle down and calm down if they are upset and to be comfortable to talk about things," Harris said.
She said that could be especially helpful during recess.
"If something goes wrong, maybe students can come over and chat with the dog for a second and they can go back without causing anybody or themselves any more problems and settle down and not be upset when they go back to class," she said.
Harris is hoping the pilot program will show the benefits of a therapy dog and eventually lead to the school having one full-time. Harris is planning to get a small poodle mix puppy this summer and begin the process to becoming certified with it.
Having a dog at the school full-time would allow for not only additional reading time, but for expansion of the emotional support program. Harris said her dog won't be able to start the training process until it is 1 year old, so a full-time program using her own dog won't be possible until 2021.
The plan is for the dog to be used in the elementary only. Last week, a letter from Principal Jacque Morgan was sent to parents to let them know about the program.
"This is a wonderful opportunity for our school community," Morgan wrote in the letter. "Research has shown that therapy dogs support psychological growth and increase social skills and self-esteem in children and adolescents."
Not only do they provide emotional support and impact reading progress, Morgan noted, they also help with communication skills.
Parents are being given the option to not have their child be part of the program, Harris said, in the event they have allergies or other concerns.
"Starting next fall, if a child is going to be directly involved with the dog, like reading, permission slips will be sent home to parents," she said. "They have the opportunity to opt out or say they want their child involved. If they don't, we will respect all those wishes and be careful where we take the dog."
"School personnel will remain vigilant to ensure that all school buildings continue to be adequately cleaned and ventilated," she said in the letter.
Harris said she hasn't received much feedback from parents since the letter was sent home.
"So far, I have one response that was forwarded to me that thought it was a great idea," she said.