SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – As Ronnie Spring, Principal of South Plainfield High School, exits the main office with Mamas, his trained and certified therapy dog, students and faculty alike stop to say ‘hi’ and pet the 7-year-old mixed breed.
“Therapy dogs have been proven to have many benefits. Whether it is teaching empathy, or addressing stress or anxiety, they can help,” said Spring. “There are also benefits from a social and educational standpoint.”
Back in December, the South Plainfield Board of Education unanimously approved a resolution allowing Spring and Mamas, to provide canine assisted therapy within the district. “The administration and the board could not have been more supportive and I cannot thank them enough,” he said.
Last month, Spring began bringing Mamas to school with him a few times a week. In addition to being able to incorporate the dog into the curriculum - she has visited classes learning about mammals, and enhancing character development and social skills - Mamas has helped ease and comfort students who may be going through a difficult and stressful time. Spring typically walks the school halls in the mornings with Mamas in an effort to let the students know she is in the building.
“She has served as an icebreaker, has helped calm students who are stressed due to an exam, and those students who may be angry or upset,” he said, adding, “There is proof that therapy dogs lower blood pressure and heart rates. I’ve had kids who come in my office, sit down and pet her and you can see, almost instantly, the positive effects.”
Spring and his family adopted Mamas from the Paws Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) of Montclair in 2011. At the time, the Boston Terrier/American Bulldog/American Staffordshire Terrier mix (among other things) was about four years old and had been living with the Essex County organization since being rescued from a kill shelter a few years prior.
At the time, Spring had three small children, including a newborn, so adopting an adult dog was something his wife was adamant about. “I’ve always had a dog and feel they are important part of the family, especially for kids, but I never got an adult dog before; I always had them as puppies,” he said, adding, “We went there to look at another dog, and Mamas just came out and sat on my son’s lap. Based on the instant rapport and comfort she had with our son and he had with her, we knew right away that she was the right dog for our family.”
As the family’s pet, Mamas – who got her name because she was pregnant and it was Mother’s Day at the time the rescue saved her – is calm and mellow. “My youngest daughter lays on her, brushes her teeth, and covers her with a blanket, and Mamas just lays there,” Spring said. “She hardly ever barks and doesn't jump on people. Despite her size, she thinks she is a lap dog. She is so good and really the best dog I have ever had with respect to kids.”
Based on her laid-back temperament, Spring looked into therapy dog training and felt it would be a good fit, not just for Mamas, but for his family as well. “I wanted to do something special with my son to help him understand the importance of empathy and helping others,” Spring said. “We looked into therapy dog training and felt Mamas would be perfect fit and that attending training together - me, Mamas and my son – would be a great way for my son to understand how we all have the ability to give back and help others.”
Spring selected the Morris Plains-based Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs, Inc. (http://www.golden-dogs.org), a non-profit all volunteer organization dedicated to helping owners of well-behaved dogs share the special love and attention their pets give to them with other less fortunate individuals. In April 2015, Spring and Mamas began training to become a certified ‘therapy dog team.’ Spring’s son also attended the training classes, which were held in Bergen County once a week over the course of several months, and got to be part of the experience.
Through the training, Mamas was evaluated on temperament, interaction with other dogs, response to commands and more. Because therapy dogs are often used in schools and nursing homes, Mamas was also tested on her reaction to noise and if she startled easy, how she handled walkers and wheelchairs and her ability to not eat things off the floor. At the end of the training, Mamas and Spring had to take and pass a test to determine how she faired on all these factors.
“She did great,” Spring said, noting that Mamas is fully certified and insured as a therapy dog through Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs, Inc.
According to Spring, there are so many pressures on students today and educators must ‘think outside the box.’ “Having Mamas here is an easy, free way to help kids and to help improve the climate in the school,” he said, adding, “As educators, one of our goals should be to take away the barriers that prevent a student from learning; those barriers can be, among other things, social, emotion, and academic. If Mamas can positively affect even one or two kids so they can learn better that day, to me that is a success.”
On a personal note, Spring said it is ‘pretty cool’ how the students react when they see Mamas in the halls. “You just see their faces light up. The whole climate becomes healthier and happier when they see her,” he said. “Having her here has been a really positive experience.”
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