Kershaw: Therapy dog supports students

Students' emotional health is integral to academic and social success throughout the school-age years.

In support of this fundamental pillar, School District 73 has many student support services in place.

Some of these include direct counselling, school psychology, speech and language services, special education options, school and family consultants, child and youth mental health clinicians, drug and alcohol counselling and First Nations Family counselling, which are integrated, as needed.

One program in particular - delivered with help from a sweet, furry, four-legged friend - has attracted a lot of positive attention in the past couple of years.

"Barnaby" is a nine-year-old Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever and a certified therapy dog who works with a variety of students, staff, and families at four local elementary schools.

Barnaby is always accompanied by Tyler Van Beers, his owner and a school and family consultant for SD73.

Van Beers is one of five consultants who work to support students experiencing social, emotional or behavioral problems. He enrolled his dog Barnaby in therapy dog training, through Therapy Dogs International, a couple of years ago to supplement the expertise Van Beers provides.

Research suggests therapy dogs help with lowering anxiety and stress levels, while supporting relationship building and connectedness.

The dogs are accepting and non-judgmental, and show unconditional love. Helping students feel connected better prepares them for learning.

Barnaby's typical work day schedule is somewhat similar to a regular employee. He likes to get to school early, greet the staff and get set up in an office space. Students stop by to say "hello" and, at recess, Barnaby likes to walk the halls. His days are busy with appointments and he often ends off with a school meeting.

Although the work is hard, Barnaby loves his job. Every time Van Beers puts the green therapy dog vest on Barnaby, he wags his tail and knows it's time for work.

Barnaby is naturally a good fit for the position. Before he was certified as a therapy dog, he was a show dog.

Barnaby enjoys being around a lot of people and in different environments. When people enter the room, they quickly note his calm personality.

Barnaby keeps to himself unless he knows he is working. Individual students who work with Barnaby can pet him, brush and walk him, and teach him tricks. Van Beers describes Barnaby as "very intuitive."

He senses when a student is going through a difficult time and will move closer to them, often putting his head on their lap.

And in the name of healthy work-life balance, Van Beers ensures Barnaby has play and exercise incorporated into his work-week routine, getting out for daily walks and exercise outside of school hours.

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