As the class buzzer rings, among the students flooding the hallways is a first-year “classmate” who’s looking forward to some hugs and scratches behind her ears.
That’s part of the class day when you are one of Lakota Schools’ first therapy dogs.
“Zooey,” a three-year-old golden retriever and therapy dog, is now spending each class day at Hopewell Junior School in West Chester Twp.
It’s an experiment to add the soothing presence of a trained canine to the usually hectic school environment. Zooey is available to any student in the school, and she has already made dozens of friends who pause in the hallways, classrooms or gym to show her some love.
Another golden retriever, “Bendi,” works with students at Creekside Early Childhood School and Lakota West Freshman School, which share a campus.
Lakota Schools Executive Director of Special Services Andrea Longworth said that “while therapy dogs have visited Lakota’s schools for several years, the district has not had one as a dedicated staff member until now.”
Longworth found Circle Tail, a non-profit organization that provides service and hearing dogs for people with disabilities.
Hopewell eighth-grader Lexi Izquierdeo said Zooey has changed the atmosphere in the school.
“She relieves a lot of stress and tension around the hallways and she is a great support. Everybody stops and stares at her and pets her,” Izquierdeo said. “We couldn’t ask for a better dog.”
LeAnna Webber, Hopewell assistant principal, agreed, saying that “(Zooey) has brought a new energy to the school and kids are excited to see her every day.”
“She greets them in the morning and you’ll just see kids relax … they love to see her,” Webber said.
“Students who are experiencing anxiety or who are otherwise struggling during their school day may request time with Zooey.”
And one of Zooey’s favorite tricks, she said, is to pick up stray pens or other small objects accidentally dropped by students.
Betsy Fuller, spokeswoman for the district, said the dog is part of a pilot program and Circle Tail is covering the expenses.
“Zooey is here to help all of our students – our special needs students as well as our general education students,” Fuller said. “She also says goodbye to everyone and goes out for bus duty in the afternoon and she helps out with gym class.”
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