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Therapy dogs help create ‘connection' with Portland students

KOIN Portland 2/4/2023 Matt Rawlings
Therapy dogs help create ‘connection' with Portland students © Provided by KOIN Portland Therapy dogs help create ‘connection' with Portland students

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Returning to the classroom for kids after the pandemic has revealed learning issues, focusing problems and struggles to socialize.

In some Portland schools, a number of kids have gotten physically aggressive after coming back to class. However, more schools are bringing in therapy dogs to help make those connections again.

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When Lander the facility dog comes to class, all excitement breaks loose

“He is that social catalyst, he creates connection,” said Jessica O’Conner, a psychologist at Sitton Elementary.

“When people are sad, they let him loose so he can go comfort them,” added Gio, a student at the school.

To students at Lincoln High, and all grade levels in between, dogs like Lander and Jaco are having a positive impact.

“Jaco’s definitely increased our communities connectedness in a way we haven’t had since COVID,” said Katie Francis, a counselor at Sellwood Middle School.

O’Conner says the adjustment back to the classroom was rough for several students.

“There was a lot of student interpersonal conflict, definitely a lot of hitting, a lot of running around, a lot of not being able to follow directions from the teacher,” she said. “It’s absolutely required to have that before students can return to instruction.”

Those issues didn’t get any easier with age.

“It was really hard because we were online for a year and not really around people, so having Jaco, it really helps kids because a lot of kids came out of it. It was a hard time for a lot of them,” said Addison Slansky an eighth grader at Sellwood Middle School.

It took some time to make sure the dogs didn’t become a distraction.

“We talked about what it means for Lander to have a job. That he is a staff member, that he has a job to do, and he is here to do his job, just as students are here to do their job which is learning and being in community,” O’Conner said.

Both dogs take tens of thousands of dollars to train to be there for the kids. O’Conner says attendance has increased since Lander’s arrival and that he helps kids become comfortable reading and learn when it’s okay to pet the pup.

“One time I came in crying and Lander knew exactly what to do. He came over and put his head on my chest and he is so sweet,” said Goldie, a Sitton Elementary student.

Lander was donated by Dogs for Better Lives in Southern Oregon, while Jaco was donated by Canine Companions in California.

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