PULASKI — Pulaski Academy and Central School District (PACS) administrators welcomed a new furry friend to the Lura M. Sharp Elementary School this month.
District leaders, School Resource Officer Regan Roach, and the Oswego County Sheriff’s Office on Friday introduced the county’s first school therapy dog — a 1-year-old English cream golden retriever named River.
River, owned and cared for by Roach, will join the resource officer three days a week at Sharp Elementary and help students manage stress. Getting the dog established and comfortable in the school has been a long time coming but after months of work and training, it has paid off, according to Sharp Elementary Principal Joelle Hendry.
“This has been a vision of mine for many years,” Hendry said Monday. “It was something we wanted to do to bring another level of comfort and support to our students and staff in the building.”
Hendry said students have responded exceptionally well to River and that the dog adds “a nice calming peace” to the school environment. She noted students who have joined River on her walks around the building with Officer Roach said they often play or read to her during her classroom visits.
According to Roach, River has gone through a rigorous 10-month obedience-training program and has had a profound effect on students suffering from emotional distress.
“There have been several incidents where a child is in a difficult position, and just walking the dog past them distracts the students to the point where they start calming down,” Roach said.
The idea came to Roach after his family got River as a puppy nearly a year ago. He wanted to bring her in to assist students having a difficult time. Roach said since he started bringing her around, there have already been a few instances where River helped calm students when he wasn’t able to.
Once the idea was proposed and discussion started, PACS Superintendent Tom Jennings said he was sold.
“Everybody loves dogs,” Jennings said Tuesday. “To have a dog like River in our school a few days a week really provides opportunities for kids to connect with Officer Roach.”
Jennings said having therapy dogs in school was not uncommon. He said that dogs helping and visiting students has been an established program in schools for a while.
“For decades there have been dogs in schools often paired with a counselors to work with kids and programs where dogs come into schools periodically and kids would read to the dogs,” he said.
Hendry said a similar program has already been practiced at Sharp Elementary with moderate success. She said students at the time had no issues with the dogs. However, in anticipation of River’s arrival last week students were briefed on how to properly speak to and approach the dog.
When asked about students who may suffer from allergies, a fear of dogs, or parents who were not interested in having their children in close proximity with River, Hendry said despite being “not an issue we have had to deal with,” plans were in place for those circumstances.
“We have been able to identify through different permissions and things the students who may have issues,” she said, adding that if a classroom has students who can’t see River, the dog would avoid that specific classroom.
Oswego County Sherriff Don Hilton said Monday he “didn’t see any downfalls” to the program because the “kids absolutely love it.“
“The focus is to bring comfort to those kids and take their minds off of the issues they are having at the time,” Hilton said. “We are excited and we’re going to see where it goes from here and how it works out. We are looking forward to other districts possibly wanting to be involved with the program.”
According to Hilton, there are no plans at this time to have similar therapy dog services in other local districts.
Jennings said that while the district has no plans to introduce a similar therapy dog to PACS Middle-High School, he said the district was open to the idea.
Having one of his best friends near him almost every day is something Roach said was a wonderful addition to his day-to-day duties and that River was enjoying herself and loves connecting with kids.
“She really is a great dog,” Roach said.