Children and teachers at Wellington’s four elementary schools have seen school psychologist Kevin Hays walk around with his therapy dogs - Jazz, a Bernese Mountain dog and Sky, a white German Shepherd.
Hays might bring one of the dogs into a classroom, but is careful not to be disruptive, and the kids are good about staying calm and asking before petting the dogs, Hays said.
The presence of the two dogs, both females, can help de-escalate tensions and restore calm to a tense situation.
When a student is showing escalating behavior “rather than having myself or other staff members talk to them, which can further escalate sometimes, I’ll just have a dog over and sit on the side and it tends to calm the kids faster.”
Hays recalled a girl who refused to return to class.
“I went over to her and just handed her the lead and she walked the dog back to call and she just walked back to class,” Hays said. “I think the advantage is just them creating that trust and relaxing and making the situation less stressful for the students and making it a positive atmosphere when it might not be positive otherwise.
Gillian Macias, principal of Kennedy Elementary, said, "Kevin does a great job in general with our students. He is wonderful.
"The dogs really calm our students and let them relax a little so they feel more comfortable to talk."
Throughout the interview, Hays’s dog, Sky, remained lying under the table. His dogs do this when he takes them to a meeting or a restaurant. The dogs stay in working mode. And they never fail to bring calm to a situation, Hays said.
“It’s interesting, it creates a different atmosphere even in meetings and things I’ll go to,” Hays said. “It’s kind of a magical thing in that it creates a positive atmosphere even if there’s not children involved.”
The dogs went through training at the Family Dog Training and Behavioral Center in Valley Center. Classes start when the dogs are puppies and not all dogs will qualify to become therapy or service dogs.
“They have to go through a series of classes and they have to pass a test and if you don’t get the test, you don’t get certified,” Hays said. “You can retake the test, but most dogs don’t pass initially. It’s kind of stringent, but they want them to be trusted to go into a setting and be comfortable.”
There are a lot of things people can do to train their puppies even without formal training, Hays said. “You need to get them out and walking in a social setting,” he said.
Hays and his wife, Lori, enter their dogs in shows where they are judged on things like agility, following scents and obeying commands. The family has a goal of raising service and therapy dogs that could be used in different capacities, such as working with veterans or children on the Autism spectrum.
Hays’s dog, Sky, is at the end of her training to be a service dog. The plan is for her to accompany Hays’s son, Kai, who has muscular dystrophy, when he enters high school next year.
The calming effects the dogs bring have health benefits, Hays said.
“In terms of heartbeat and blood pressure, in the presence of an animal, it actually lowers,” he said.