Whitehorse 'trauma-informed' school includes therapy dog

·4 min read
Brentt Linville, in Grade 2, stops to pet Luna while walking through the school with educational assistant Laura Pipietro. (Philippe Morin/CBC - image credit)
Brentt Linville, in Grade 2, stops to pet Luna while walking through the school with educational assistant Laura Pipietro. (Philippe Morin/CBC - image credit)

A school in Whitehorse says it's making progress in better relating to students who have had traumatic experiences or have difficulty forming relationships.

Part of that work at Takhini Elementary involves a therapy dog.

Vice-principal and counsellor Lisa Evans says the dog offers a calming presence and physical contact.

"Sometimes kids have a really hard time connecting with an adult or other children and Luna is the one they connect with," she said.

Evans describes the school as working to become trauma-sensitive or even "trauma transformed" in recent years.

"Whether it be family violence, neglect, abuse, we call it developmental trauma. It can be something they've experienced from the time they've very young, or a one-time incident that had an impact. When we say trauma-sensitive it means we're approaching children in a way that meets them where they are," she said.

The dog seems to be popular among the general student population and even has its picture on the "staff" wall at Takhini Elementary.

Luna is 'co-teacher'

Luna is Evans' four-year-old Labradoodle.

She has been a presence in the school since she was a pup.

"She's a working dog. She's got a true job. It's not just having her in the building," Evans said. "She's my teaching partner and working partner."

Sometimes Grade 1 and 2 students will read stories to the dog, as it will listen without judgment if they stumble or stutter.

Students also pet the dog and accompany Evans on nature walks.

Evans said some students are afraid of dogs but positive contact can help overcome that fear.

Vice-principal and counsellor Lisa Evans says the dog offers a calming presence and physical contact.
Vice-principal and counsellor Lisa Evans says the dog offers a calming presence and physical contact.(Philippe Morin/CBC)

"Dogs give unconditional love. They don't require anything from the student. Being able to have a positive relationship with the dog is a really great thing and it can be the foundation for growing to having relationships and trusting other people," she said.

Murithi Marangu is one student in Grade 5 who pets the dog whenever it walks by.

"I like Luna, she's very kind, and it helps a lot of people when they're stressed out and need to calm down," he said.

'She's a working dog,' said Evans of her dog Luna. 'She's my teaching partner and working partner.'
'She's a working dog,' said Evans of her dog Luna. 'She's my teaching partner and working partner.'(Philippe Morin/CBC)

Sensory room, no bells in school

As part of its "trauma-informed" approach, the school does not use chimes or bells to accommodate students who are sensitive to noise.

Another recent change is a "sensory room" which has a swing, rocking chairs, a yoga ball to provide a quiet space for students as needed.

Other Yukon schools have had dogs before.

Former F.H. Collins Secondary School principal Bruce Thomson had a shaggy dog called Jango which he brought to the high school for years.

"Kids just kind of fell in love with him. Kids would come to him for therapy, if they were crying, or upset, or if they had an exam, they would sit in the middle of the hallway and pet him, and he would give love back to them equally," he said of the dog upon retiring in 2019.

That dog was popular, but was not formally a therapy dog.

Evans is a certified animal-assisted play therapist with a degree from the International Association of Animal Assisted Therapy, a school in Pennsylvania.

The vice-principal's office is filled with different sensory toys to make children feel more at ease.
The vice-principal's office is filled with different sensory toys to make children feel more at ease.(Philippe Morin/CBC)

She says her work is also informed by being a registered psychologist and play therapist.

Risë VanFleet runs the school in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania, where Evans studied.

She said most educators she has trained have been working with dogs, but some have chosen horses, goats, rabbits, cows and pigs.

"One area would be developing empathy, basic empathy for others," VanFleet said. "If you have had bad experiences, you might not have the experience of having someone care about you. Just having the animal there, having someone want to be with you, can be very valuable."

Murithi Marangu (in orange coat) is one student in Grade 5 who pets the dog whenever it walks by. 'I like Luna, she's very kind, and it helps a lot of people when they're stressed out and need to calm down,' he said.
Murithi Marangu (in orange coat) is one student in Grade 5 who pets the dog whenever it walks by. 'I like Luna, she's very kind, and it helps a lot of people when they're stressed out and need to calm down,' he said. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Yukon Education supports therapy dogs, but no funding allocated

CBC asked Yukon Education how therapy dogs fit into the territory's education policy.

Yukon Education spokesperson Erin MacDonald responded by email.

The note says individual schools are free to pursue the use of therapy dogs if they wish so long as they have a risk management plan.

No Yukon government funds are allocated to therapy dogs or related training.