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Students enjoying dog days of school; Mia helps ease stress during classes in MASD

By David Barr, Special to the Press & Journal
Posted 1/3/18

As Jamar Neal listened to the story “Arthur’s Thanksgiving” being read by Kunkel Elementary School teacher Lianna Houtz on Tuesday, Nov. 21, his friend Mia was sitting next to …

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Students enjoying dog days of school; Mia helps ease stress during classes in MASD

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As Jamar Neal listened to the story “Arthur’s Thanksgiving” being read by Kunkel Elementary School teacher Lianna Houtz on Tuesday, Nov. 21, his friend Mia was sitting next to him.

Mia calmly laid next to Jamar, allowing every now and again for a quick scratch or a head rub. That might not be appropriate activity among two students, but this is different.

Mia, a 3 1/2-year-old Golden Retriever, is a therapy dog used to help students in the Middletown Area School District cope with stress and anxiety.

Mia is on duty three days a week in the district, available to enter any building where she is needed.

When on duty but not in use, she has a dog-friendly residence in the room of high school teacher Lisa O’Connell, who is Mia’s handler.

In O’Connell’s room, Mia has a dog bed, food and water dishes, and toys.

Mia’s duties are simple: Be there for those who need her and provide a comforting presence to students, no matter their age or issue.

“She makes me feel good, helps me calm down,” Jamar said of Mia’s presence, adding that since Mia had visited them before and was familiar with this group of students, she would “walk to you and let you pet her.”

Taking a cue from Derry

It was a combination of the efforts of O’Connell and school board President Linda Mehaffie that brought Mia to Middletown. Mehaffie’s husband, Rep. Thomas Mehaffie, visited the Derry Township School District and was introduced to the service dog there. That’s how she heard about the idea of having a service dog in a school district.

The Derry Township School District program served as a model for the program that O’Connell hoped to bring to Middletown. O’Connell introduced the idea of bringing Mia into the schools to Middletown Superintendent Lori Suski in September 2016 and finally brought it to the school board’s attention last spring and was given permission to start acclimating her to the buildings and students.

Suski said that the board “fully supported the idea of bringing in a service dog for MASD.”

“Knowing that Mrs. O’Connell has a few dogs that she has trained to be service dogs, I approached her with the request to have one of her dogs become the MASD service dog. Mrs. O’Connell offered Mia for the job. Both the middle and high schools are already acquainted with having a service dog on site because a former student (now graduated) had a personal service dog with her throughout her schooling in MASD,” Suski said in an email.

A ray of sunshine

Mia’s mere appearance is the metaphorical sunshine to a student’s cloudy day as evidenced by her visit to Houtz’s room at Kunkel. It wasn’t just Neal, but others who exuded happiness and relaxation with Mia in the room.

“When they see Mia, you see a smile on their face,” O’Connell said.

The four-legged guest of honor took all the attention in stride, never becoming aggressive, just patiently absorbing all the hands and fingers of the students who wanted just a few minutes of her time to temporarily forget the reading assignment they were focused on minutes earlier.

From reading out loud to her and attempting to play fetch with her, to multiple head scratches and asking questions of O’Connell, the students’ pleasure from Mia’s presence was palpable, especially as the time to depart arrived. Some students lingered, not wanting to say goodbye.

Nisier Franklin got a special goodbye from Mia as he got her to extend her paw and shake it.

“She really does calm them down,” Houtz said. “What kid doesn’t want to read to a dog either?”

Talaysia Roy had the opportunity for some one-on-one time with Mia before having to leave. She simply soaked up the moment with Mia, petting her and listening to the answers to the questions posed to O’Connell.

Talaysia said if anyone is feeling sad or upset, they should visit Mia if they can because she would cheer them up. Because of that, she’s an important part of the school environment.

“When she sees us, she’s happy and when I see her I’m happy, too,” Talaysia said.

The Nov. 21 visit wasn’t the first time Mia had come to visit Houtz’s room. She visited on the morning of Friday, Nov. 3. That was the first time Houtz had requested Mia’s presence and the Nov. 3 meeting went so well, Houtz asked that Mia return.

“I thought that Mia would be an excellent addition to our classroom because my students will feel motivated to complete their work when Mia is in the classroom, cheer them up on difficult days, and provide a sense of calm in the room as students are working when Mia is present,” Houtz said in an email. “I also think it is important for my students to learn dog safety and the benefits therapy dogs can provide for them.”

Mia takes away any tension or stress that the students might be feeling, she said.

“They enjoy having her in the room as they are learning. Some of my students enjoy sitting in a bean bag chair with Mia laying next to her as they finish an assignment or laying on the floor with her while they read a book,” she said.

“I think it is an excellent program, and I cannot wait to see the various ways in which it will be used in our district. Therapy dogs can provide a wide range of benefits and it is great that our district is utilizing Mia to begin this program,” Houtz said.

Stress relief

The visits to Houtz’s classroom weren’t Mia’s first foray into one of the Middletown Area School District’s classrooms. On the morning of Tuesday, Oct. 3, Mia visited Elizabeth Gannon-Rittenhouse’s honors English 2 class, composed of sophomores, at the high school. As with Houtz’s students, several of Gannon-Rittenhouse’s students were glad to see Mia, as evidenced by the emotion and smiles on their faces upon her arrival.

Mia seemed to congregate with one particular cluster of students, which included Cayla Garman, that morning. Cayla, who has three dogs of her own at home, said having Mia in the classroom “reminds me of home” where her dogs are there as she does her work.

She added that she and others deal with high anxiety because they’re taking honors and Advanced Placement classes, which can be stressful, and just seeing Mia in the hallways and being able to pet her helps them cope.

“We all love her,” Cayla said.

Gannon-Rittenhouse backed Garman’s claims up, stating that she requested Mia’s presence after a particular day when her students were stressed out and she saw firsthand how big the difference in her students’ attitude was when Mia was in the classroom and how calmed down the students were.

Gannon-Rittenhouse said that sometimes people forget that honor students are working under stress, preparing for college, Keystones, and their AP classes and it is real for them, and so she’s had Mia return several times since that initial day.

“She just puts a smile on everybody’s face,” Gannon-Rittenhouse said. “It’s nice to have that little bit of stress relief.”

Suski said elementary school students will read books to Mia as a way of practicing reading because it is less intimidating for a child to read aloud to a dog than to an adult or peer if the student struggles with self-confidence.

That was confirmed as Houtz gave her students a brief reading assignment after she had concluded reading “Arthur” to them. Students split into pairs and took turns reading a book. As they read, Mia came around to the groups and sat nearby, listening as they read.

“Thus far, I have heard a lot of positive feedback from teachers and students about seeing Mia in their schools,” Suski said.