Franklin County therapy dogs visit high school to promote mental well-being

Students and staff play with therapy dogs brought in by the Franklin County Sheriff’s department March 23. (Photo by Gabrielle Cabanes)

Officers and therapy dogs from the Franklin County Therapy Dog Program visited the high school March 23 from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. to promote wellness within the school community.

High school counselor Claudia Fugate said that the event took place in the gym and was available to all students and staff members. She added that individuals were able to sign up via a Google Form sent out March 21, and the time slots were divided into 10 minute periods, each with a 20 person maximum.

Sergeant Jason Ratcliff of the Franklin County Therapy Dog Program said therapy dogs have been proven effective in comforting individuals, through studies reflecting that interacting with dogs can lower heart rates.

Ratcliff explained that while they often visit schools, the dogs’ primary job is to assist victims of crimes. These victims are most frequently juvenile victims of sex crimes, Fugate added.

“Whether it’s when they’re testifying or in the interrogation room, the situation is going to be really high stress and they’re talking about some super traumatic event,” she said. “Having the dog there is something to distract them in a happy, pleasant way, which has historically made it easier for victims to open up.”

Ratcliff said the department does many different things within schools, including working with counselors and discussing Internet safety.

Fugate, who had the idea to bring in the dogs, said she wanted the event to be an opportunity for students to relax and focus on their wellness.

“The whole goal of it was just to give you a minute to not worry about the stress of being a teenager or worry about everything going on in school,” she said. “In the fourth quarter, everybody is just already naturally very stressed out. It was just supposed to be a break in the day to do something new and hang out with the dogs.”

She added that this idea was based on her experiences with therapy dogs as a college student at The Ohio State University.

“When I was there, they always had therapy dogs during exam weeks, and it was always super fun to just cut through the library and see a handful of golden retrievers running around,” she said.

She reached out to the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department, who accepted her invitation to visit the high school.

Fugate said that she thought the event went well but wished the therapy dogs could have stayed longer.

“The only thing is that I was disappointed that they had to leave right at noon to go and do other duties,” she said. “I would’ve loved to have them throughout lunch so more kids could have come.”

Art teacher Helma Groot said that she visited the therapy dogs along with three of her students.

“After they pet the dogs, they seemed to be in a much better mood than before,” she said.

Senior Sofia Guzman also attended the therapy dog event and said she enjoyed the break from studying but wished there were more dogs present.

“There were only two dogs there,” she said. “A lot of people came, so everyone had to crowd around them. They were really cute, though.”

Due to this event’s success, Fugate said she hopes to have more opportunities like this in the future and will take student feedback as to what that would look like.

Guzman suggested that, if this event happened again, the officers should bring the dogs around to individual classrooms to minimize traffic surrounding the dogs and increase the number of students who could participate. She added that she feels these types of experiences leave a positive impact on the school environment.

“I think that it was a very good start to incorporating more wellness into our school,” she said. “I think continuing these types of opportunities could only benefit the student body.”

Groot said she was glad to see the school take the mental health of its students and staff into account.

“It has been such a stressful school year,” she said. “Any opportunity we can have to reduce that is certainly welcome.”