Brittney Lofthouse – Staff Writer

Students at Union Academy aren’t the only ones wandering the hallways, with the help of a grant from the Quigley Family Foundation, Union students can interact with Polly, a six-month-old Coton de Tulear therapy dog.

“Last school year, I noticed how quickly students calmed down when they held the science teacher’s rabbit,” said Union Academy Principal Diane Cotton. “I remembered Nancy Cantrell, the district’s Exceptional Children’s Director, telling me about an alternative school she visited that had a therapy dog and the impact she thought it made on the students. I called some schools who had therapy dogs and each principal had nothing but positive stories to tell.”

After researching the feasibility of the idea, Cotton began to research the breed of dog that would meet the needs of Union students.

“I knew the dog should be hypoallergenic to lessen the chances of any allergic reactions,” said Cotton. “I also wanted a small dog because I knew a couple of my students were uncomfortable with large breeds. My research kept bringing me back to a relatively rare breed called a Coton de Tulear.  The Coton is originally from Madagascar, has a sweet temperament, cute appearance and clownish personality while showing amazing intelligence, quick wit, stamina and the ability to read people’s feelings. They are companion dogs who like nothing more than snuggling and being petted. The breed is easily trained and are very adaptable. A Coton de Tulear is named for the city of Tulear in Madagascar and for its cotton-like coat.  It generally has very soft hair, comparable to a cotton ball,  a prominent black nose, large expressive eyes and somewhat short legs.”

The next step was finding funding for the project.  While talking to Kevin Inabinet, a local therapist, about the idea,  he suggested that Cotton contact the Quigley Family Foundation for a grant.  The Quigley Family was very responsive to the idea, and after Cotton submitted a grant application, they graciously offered to help. Mrs. Cotton provides the cost of food, supplies and veterinary bills.

“I wanted a dog that would be responsive to my students and staff and playful enough to put a smile on everyone’s face,” said Cotton. “When I went to purchase a puppy from a breeder in Mt. Airy, I took my grandchildren with me. Polly immediately climbed into my grandson’s lap and nuzzled him to continue to pet him. I knew I had found the perfect little personality. In the few weeks she has been at Union, the students light up when I take her out to greet them in the hallways. She has calmed students with anxiety, made upset students laugh, and just provided a comforting presence to my students and staff.”

Polly has been training with Stacia Bennett and her training is covered under the grant the school received.  Bennett meets for individual lessons with Polly and Mrs. Cotton to complete her basic training in preparations of Canine Good Citizen testing.  After Polly completes the CGC testing, she will continue to receive training to be certified as an emotional support dog. The test for therapy dog certification cannot be given until she turns one year old.

“We plan to have her ready for the assessment on her first birthday,” said Cotton. “Polly learns quickly and has mastered ringing her bell to alert Union staff of the need for a trip outdoors. She is currently working on the basic skill of ‘stay in place’ after learning ‘sit,’ ‘down,’ ‘come’  and ‘crate.’ The command of ‘go visit’ was quickly mastered for her to leave her place and provide comfort for students.”

Polly is available in the office for any student who may need a quiet time to regroup and get back to class as soon as possible.

“We have one middle school student who has a ‘Polly Time Behavior Plan’ and spending a few minutes with Polly is the reward for successful completion of certain tasks during the day,” said Cotton. “In addition, our Animal Science class has received some time with the trainer to expose them to the nuances of training a dog and further open up some career choices they may have not considered. My hope is that Polly can provide a calming influence for our students at Union. Students today are under so much pressure. High school is not a easy thing. With all the testing, technology and social media, our students are under pressure in new and  changing ways. Students can hold and pet Polly when they are discussing self-esteem, depression, social issues with friends, and feelings that are hard to talk about in a stressful situation. My hope is that Polly can ease that stress and help our students overcome the obstacles that may keep them from learning. I’m a firm believer in educating with the whole child approach. Each child deserves to be healthy, safe, engaged, supported and challenged. I believe Polly can help with that endeavor.”

“Polly’s presence has brought our school a lot of innocent joy that is sometimes lacking with teenagers,” said Dawn Westbrook, online learning facilitator at Union Academy. “We are all reduced to happy children in her presence, and at times, that is a very good and necessary thing.”

Therapy dogs in schools aren’t a new concept. This year, the Department of Education of New York City Schools began the school year with 37 therapy dogs after piloting the idea last year on seven campuses. Schools across the country are reaching out to therapy dog programs for the many benefits they provide to students. Therapy dogs provide an inexpensive way to assist students in focusing on their education. They provide a comforting presence that should be available to troubled young people.