Saturday, May 11, 2013

The "Comfort Dogs" Visit Francis Wyman Elementary School

I received a phone call Thursday afternoon from one of our parents, Mr. Lantz, calling to find out if we would be interested in a visit from the "Comfort Dogs". He is working with the organization and the dogs had a little time in their schedule on Friday. I learned from him that these are the dogs that are visiting  Boston hospitals to provide comfort to the victims of the Boston Bombing. They are also the dogs that provided support to the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown CT. The purpose of the dogs is therapeutic  in that people respond so positively to their gentle manner. Whether child or adult, a short time visiting with the dogs, and perhaps petting them, evokes warmth, comfort and general happiness. The dogs were visiting Spaulding Rehab on Friday and they had a little break in their schedule which they could give to Francis Wyman Elementary School.

My immediate thought was of  Mrs. Maria Cormier, the special education teacher of our LABBB Collaborative's IDEAL program.  A couple of years ago she had approached me about her interest in being trained in a "Therapy Dog" program.  To implement a therapy dog program, one must commit to many months of extensive training. The handler and the dog participate in extensive training, resulting in compliant, docile, dogs who are ready for their mission to provide comfort. She had researched the program and had learned of its positive benefits and felt that a therapy dog would have an  important influence on her students. Because of Maria, I knew the value of the dogs and knew that this was a terrific opportunity.

Students who are allergic to dogs were my first consideration. After consulting the school nurse and Dr. Conti and learning of the guidelines the Comfort Dogs program has in place in consideration of dog  allergies, the invitation to visit Francis Wyman Elementary School was accepted. We would have about one hour with the dogs.

On Friday afternoon, five "Comfort Dogs" and their handlers arrived at FWS at about 1:30. Our goal was to find a way to share these special dogs with as many students as possible within the last hour of school. Our first visit was to Maria's IDEAL program. Maria's class was ready and waiting for this special visit. It was truly a touching experience to witness the students responding to these gentle dogs. They were highly motivated to connect with the dogs and their engagement allowed them to connect in ways that had never been seen before. All of us felt privileged to experience this special interaction.

After visiting with the IDEAL program, the dogs visited with students from our other LABBB Collaborative special education program as well as students in our Burlington School District special education programs. Students were delighted to engage with the dogs and experience their soothing ways. The dogs visited our first graders in the auditorium as they practiced their upcoming Dinosaur show. Students who wanted to could  visit with them in small groups. Some of our third and fourth grade classes had a visit with the dogs as the classes were passing through the front lobby area. After  a week of MCAS testing, the visit was a nice break for them. Our last stop was going to be our biggest challenge - bringing the dogs to  bus dismissal in the gym. It was our best opportunity to provide access to the dogs to the most students.  The students were so excited to see the dogs but the dogs were nonplussed. They remained cool, calm and collected in the hub-bub of the bus dismissal.

The visit ended after the last bus left, about 2:50. The dogs were heading back to Boston to continue their visits to Boston hospitals. It was but a brief visit, but we tried to provide as many students as possible the opportunity to visit with the dogs. Many students were able to experience their positive impact and the enthusiasm was electric wherever the dogs went.

For a school whose motto is "Francis Wyman School CARES", this was a very special afternoon. Yes, the "E for Enthusiasm" was evident, but our first value, "C for Compassion", was ever-present throughout the visit.  We did not emphasize to our students the fact that these are the same dogs that have been  bringing comfort to the victims of the Boston Bombing and Newtown CT. We continue to be sensitive to protecting our young students from exposure to these horrific events. However,  it was a moving experience for the adults in the building. As we observed the impact of the Comfort Dogs on our students,  we could not help but imagine how these same dogs have been working to provide a little respit for those victims and their families for whom our hearts have ached.  As we pet the dogs, we knew that we were now connected to the hands of those who have touched the dogs before coming to us and the hands of those who will touch the dogs after they leave us. Compassion encompassed us that Friday afternoon as our hearts were so deeply touched.  Thank you to the Comfort Dogs for taking time out of your busy schedule to spend time with us at Francis Wyman Elementary School. Thank you for bringing comfort to the students, teachers and families of Sandy Hook Elementary School. Thank you for supporting our very own Boston Strong!

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