Lab Report: The Therapy Dogs Who Help City Students

therapy dogsVolunteer therapy dog Ripley is surrounded by a group of adoring fans. Photos by Jess Benjamin.

The door is hardly open when the chorus of young voices starts up:

“Ripley!”

“Yes—Monty!”

“They’re here!”

We’ve only just arrived inside the John F. Kennedy Elementary School on Cherry Street, so we’re not yet entirely primed on who the popular kids and teachers are at this particular educational institution. But it seems pretty safe to say that Ripley and Monty are two of the most well-liked beings in the building. And of course they are—they’re a pair of furry, jovial Labrador retrievers.

On this sunny August morning, Ripley and his owner, Kate Castle, head to the front of the room to ask the students what they’ve been doing this summer. Their answers—swimming, chucking water balloons, playing in Conway Park—sound like an awful lot of fun. Although, it’s hard to imagine that anything could bring a smile to their faces that’s any broader than the ones they’re sporting now.

And that’s exactly the point. After they’ve answered Castle’s questions, they’re allowed out of their seats to play with the dogs. Immediately, Ripley is encircled by a group of seven eager students.

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Ripley and Monty are members of the Somerville Public Schools therapy dog program, a fairly new initiative in the district. In October 2013, Candace Shostak and her dogs Teo and Tribble became the first team to work in the schools. Castle and Ripley were the second, joining a class at the East Somerville Community School in January of 2015. Monty—who is also certified through the American Kennel Club as “Therapy Dog Excellent” with 200 visits completed—and his owner, Kim McLanahan, came on board in March of that year.

Ripley and Monty are both certified through Dog B.O.N.E.S., a Medford-based organization that trains teams of therapy dogs. Every week, the group sends out a list of people and organizations requesting services from their grads, which is when Castle came across one from a special needs teacher in the Somerville School District. A Somerville resident, she thought it was a great fit, so she and Ripley came on board in her combined first-, second- and third-grade classroom.

That caught the eye of Kirsten Spence, another teacher in the building. “Soon after we started, Kirsten … was like, ‘Oh my god, I want a dog too,’” Castle laughs. “She had come down and seen and thought this was amazing.’” It was the beginning of an ongoing relationship; it’s Spence’s summer school students at JFK whom Monty and Ripley are visiting today.

Here in her class, energetic kids say, “Speak!” and give out treats when Ripley barks on command. That’s not Monty’s trick of choice, but she’s great at giving high fives; a student named Dante says that’s his favorite part.

The pair of pups have been pulled into other schools throughout the district, too. Following a recent fire that claimed homes in East Somerville, four students who had escaped the traumatizing blaze weren’t communicating or talking after. The district thought Monty and Ripley might help. “As they’re petting the dogs, they started crying and talking about being in that situation for the first time,” Castle recalls. “It was pretty incredible.”

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Often, the change is much more incremental. One student, Vladimir, has been visiting with Ripley and Monty for years. He wasn’t always keen on reading aloud, but he would read to the dogs. Eventually, he and his classmates even wrote a book about Ripley that they later read to him. (Students have also put together a bulletin board celebrating what the dogs mean to them.)

“To see his relationship has grown and changed with the dogs, and his comfort level … he’s almost proud. ‘I know this, I know Monty,’” McLanahan explains.

“They tell you this, and you see all the studies, but to see it—if you get a dog, and give a kid a book, and put them next to each other, the kid will read the book to the dog. And they’ll read better, because there’s zero judgement.” Castle says.

That’s probably why the program continues to grow. Last year, nine teams were working at seven different Somerville schools. At this point, it’s gotten almost too popular; last year there were nine teams of dogs working in seven schools, and there are 32 requests from staff members for weekly therapy dog team visits next year, according to volunteer coordinator Jennifer Capuano. The district is currently looking for additional volunteers.

Volunteering isn’t for every dog, but when pups have a sweet temperament like Monty or Ripley, they’re a great fit for this sort of work. The dogs do more than help reluctant readers—McLanahan says there are students with sensory issues who won’t let anyone touch them, but who will lie down on top of the dogs, no problem. During one visit, just days after the 2016 presidential election, she recalls the reaction the dogs instilled in concerned immigrant students: “The kids were literally bursting into tears hugging Monty and Ripley.” And she says the visits can be vital for staff as well, who interact with the dogs and get a “reset” for the students that can help get everyone back on track. “You’re helping the entire team, if you will, from the children to the staff members.”

The students seem to agree.

“She’s doing a good job,” Dante adds after a high-five, giving Monty an approving pat.

This story appears in the September/October print issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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