girl kneeling with dog, classroom, shelves, books, totes

In Spring of 2022, CVA senior Emma Wheet presented her AP Capstone project before a panel of faculty and administrators. For roughly 30 minutes, she discussed her research into the merits of therapy dogs in school. She concluded the evidence clearly showed the social and emotional benefits a therapy dog could have on students 

One of the people sitting on her panel was CVA principal Dick Keeler. Throughout her research, Emma had shared her findings with him.

"There was a yearlong conversation of the pros and cons of therapy dogs in school," said Keeler.

"That led to discussions with the people from Therapy Dogs International."

On Tuesday, Oct. 18, CVA hosted its first therapy dog, a seven-year-old Shiloh Shepherd named Cody. Cody and his owner Colleen O'Leary spent most of the school day in Connected Community School's Hub near the school's main entrance.

A steady flow of students and adults stopped in throughout the day. Visitors knelt beside Cody, talked to him, pet him—everything people do with a dog. Those brief moments changed faces from frowns to smiles; any pressures seemed to melt away.

Role of a therapy dog

Post-COVID, students and staff struggled to find a new "normal." Social skills were rusty and simple day-to-day interactions were stressful. Schools across the country were looking for ways to reacclimate people back to school.

Step in Cody the therapy dog. His presence achieved the desired goal. He brightened people's days and improved the overall school environment.

Not any dog can be a therapy dog. Each dog must pass Therapy Dog International's strict hour-long test. Dogs must obey commands, walk on a leash, not take food unless directed, and not be frightened by sudden noises or wheelchairs. Any sign of fear or aggression automatically excludes a dog.

To be clear, therapy dogs are not service dogs. A service dog is trained to help people with disabilities. Therapy dogs are trained to provide comfort and affection to people in hospice, disaster areas, retirement homes, schools, etc.

Therapy dogs in school is a new concept, so Keeler and school staff were careful to address concerns in advance. Any contact with the dog would be completely voluntary. No one with a fear of dogs or who suffered pet allergies would be exposed to a dog walking through the halls.At the same time, the dog would need to be accessible. So school officials hosted Cody and Ms. O'Leary in the Hub where anyone could stop in, if they wanted. 

The impact of AP Capstone

AP Capstone is a diploma program from College Board (the SAT people). To earn the recognition, students must complete two yearlong courses, AP Seminar and AP Research. It culminates with a research paper and a presentation that summarizes and defends their research.

CVA teacher Jim Mott guides students through the stringent process. Unlike other courses where Mott may lay out a specific path, AP Capstone allows each student to pursue research that personally interests him or her. Topics have touched on issues from medical ethics and politics to career planning and high school life.

"AP Capstone challenges our students to use all of the skills they have acquired throughout their school careers to research an issue they feel impassioned about," said Keeler.

"Emma's project last year resulted in meetings with Therapy Dogs International and ultimately in today's visit. This is evidence of the power of that student research to implement change in our school district."