Busy days are routine for students, but with the help of man’s best friend, stress levels may lessen for high schoolers and staff.
Project Paws is a program through the Tim Buckley Project from Old Lyme that works to bring therapy animals into the community to better mental health.
“The project started as a way to honor my son Tim’s life. Tim died of an accidental drug overdose in May 2017, and I needed a way to share his life and keep him close to me,” said Lisa Buckley, founder of the Tim Buckley Project. “The idea for the therapy dogs came from Tim’s relationship with our family dog, who gave him a relationship he probably was not getting from the humans in his life. There was unconditional love and a safe, non-judgemental relationship.”
Therapy dogs started visiting ELHS last winter through Project Paws and another organization called Pet Partners.
“For any human being, and not just students, animals show a source of positive regard,” said guidance counselor Lisa Ramaccia. “Everyone needs more of that in their lives.”
According to UCLA Health, petting a dog releases chemicals serotonin, prolactin, and oxytocin, which are mood-elevating hormones.
“I don’t have a dog, so being able to go up to one who will let me pet it and spend time with it is so calming,” said senior Jamie Toole. “I find that when I go back to my problems, I look at them from a different angle because I’m less stressed.”
Therapy dogs visit ELHS every other Thursday during lunch and also wait in the ELMS lobby while students walk to lunch.
“It’s another outlet for kids and staff for students get their minds off of school,” said head of security Chris Olsen, who organizes the dog visits. “Just the few minutes of interaction is nice, and I’m planning on keeping this program up for as long as we can.”
There are some concerns therapy dogs cause. Dog allergies are a problem these programs face; however, ELHS has “less than 10 cat or dog allergies,” said school nurse Janet Binkowski.
“Therapy dogs are always optional for students, so there’s a choice to pet them or not,” said Ms. Binkowski. “Everyone just has to accept responsibility for themselves and their allergies.”
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health suggests that animal assisted therapy reduces symptoms of depression, PTSD, and anxiety.
“I’m obsessed with animals, and I’ve always wanted to be around them,” said junior Natalie D’amico, who helps Mr. Olsen with the program. “It makes me happy to see other people enjoying them.”
Though the dogs can be overlooked during a busy day, the connections made during a few minutes of interaction make a substantial difference for anyone.
“Students today have an expectation to achieve at levels that are a lot higher and more competitive. It’s hard to find time to just be quiet in your own mind,” said Ms. Buckley. “I think that there’s never a bad time to be around a dog.”