By Lynn Colburn
Man’s best friend is not only for homes and law enforcement. Dogs can be used at schools for many reasons; some are even brought to colleges to relax students during finals. Soon a new canine member will be joining Four Rivers Special Education as a therapy dog to assist students. However, help with funding is still needed to complete its training and its handler’s training.
“I have been doing research for about a year since going to the Illinois Association of School Social Work (IASSW) Conference in 2018,” explains Melissa Certa, MSW, School Social Word Supervisor for Four Rivers Special Education. “One of the conferences there was on the benefits of having a full-time therapy dog with a social worker. That was when I was able to see the difference one therapy dog made for a school and I knew it was something I would fight to get into our school. Luckily, we have such a great supportive administration here at Four Rivers that it wasn’t a fight at all. The director and principal were intrigued by the idea and began doing research themselves. I presented to Four Rivers School Board in May and by June the therapy dog was approved.”
Four Rivers Special Education District serves children birth to 21 years of age in 19 districts and their surrounding counties. Garrison is a therapeutic day school serving 19 districts and has 11 classrooms with no more than eight students in a classroom with a special education teacher and a classroom aide. Garrison also has crisis/quiet rooms for students struggling with self-regulation. Certa says, “When people hear Garrison, they often have misconceptions about the school. All of our students struggle with emotional disabilities such as autism, anxiety disorder, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and more. Garrison is a therapeutic environment that our students can thrive in. Being able to provide a therapy dog in this setting is a great benefit for their overall emotional and mental well-being.”
Following approval, Certa began researching agencies that provide dogs and professional training. “I found an agency in Ohio that picks out a dog of the breeds I choose with a knowledgeable eye and then trains the dog on site for three months. After the dog’s training, I will travel to Ohio to train with the trainer and the dog myself.”
The trainer is currently looking for a six to 10-month old Standard Poodle or Goldendoodle that will fit the school’s needs. Certa chose these breeds for their hypoallergenic characteristics after speaking to other therapy dog handlers. They also explained to her that if someone would be allergic to the dog, she would need to schedule not to be in the places with those students at the same time.
“Once the dog is cleared to come back with me, after both trainings, I plan to seek out further training with an agency in Springfield,” says Certa.
Certa explained that a therapy dog is a highly trained support animal meant for the emotional support of those around them. They provide comfort, support and love to others. Therapy dogs are meant to lower blood pressure, improve cardiovascular health, release endorphins (oxytocin) that have a calming effect, diminish overall physical pain, and simply the act of petting produces an automatic relaxation response, reducing the amount of medication some people may need.
The new therapy dog will work 40 hours a week with Certa at Garrison Therapeutic School.
Certa says, “Through the dog, I hope students make a connection where they have not always been able to make connections before. I hope a therapy dog will become a reality in every single school across the United States.” Locally, Certa says, “I would also love to visit some nursing homes and even some of the schools in our serving counties with the dog if possible.”
The dog does not come for free. Certa says, “I am fully responsible for the funding of the dog, her training and daily living. The dog will cost $6,000. We have already raised $2,500 for the down payment for the dog and training which was sent on October 11. We recently raised $110 through a ‘Pack the House’ night with Leo’s Pizza on October 15 which people generously supported, and we thank Leo’s Pizza.”
Certa continues, “However, we still need $930 to make our goal. This Friday, November 8 we have a Trivia night and silent auction at the AMVETS, 210 E. Court Street. It is $10 per person with up to 10 people at a table. We will have food for purchase and 50/50 tickets, and profits will go toward the dog training, but people are welcome to bring in food as well. A drawing for the 50/50 will take place at the end of the night and the winner does not need to be present. A cash bar will be available. The Trivia night starts at 7 p.m. Guests can buy their tables at the door. If anyone would like to contribute, they can send a check made out to ‘Melissa Certa – therapy dog’ and send it to Four Rivers Special Education, 936 W. Michigan Avenue, Jacksonville, IL 62650.”
Certa looks forward to bringing the therapy dog here to become a great asset to all the areas the school serves including Brown, Calhoun, Cass, Green, Macoupin, Morgan, Pike and Scott counties.