Superintendent Perspectives: Placing Therapy Dogs

Superintendent Julie Lauck shares her unfurgettable story

Image: Valparaiso Community Schools superintendent Julie Lauck

The story I want to tell you begins with a Yorkie and her tummy ache.

When I took my dog to the vet late last spring, I thanked Dr. Bill Donohue again for sponsoring our district’s one and only therapy dog. The impact had been miraculous; I told him I would have a dog in every school if I could. To my surprise, Dr. Donohue then offered to sponsor any dog we could place. He even had a patient expecting a litter of ten English Cream Golden Retrievers!  I looked at him and said, “I’ll place every single puppy.” He gave me the contact information, and so it began.

Achieving the Impawssible

When I got in touch with the owner, eight of the ten expected pups were still available. Within days, eager members of my leadership team volunteered to be handlers. Within four hours of securing those handlers, I had already raised $12,000 from local sponsors to help with the initial costs of purchasing the pups, setting up a working area at each school, and helping with the costs of training.  In the end, we actually ended up with nine of the ten from that first litter, an additional English Cream Golden Retriever from an entirely different breeder, a  two-year-old Labrador, and a one-year-old Labradoodle.  By the first day of school this year, we had 12 pups training to be therapy dogs in our district: one for each school, just as I’d hoped.

Certainly, the small beginnings of this project are remarkable; the financial support of our sponsors, as well as Dr. Donohue and the other vets at Vale Park Animal Hospital, even more so. But the most important piece, the heart of this project, is the support these dogs will provide for both students and staff.

As superintendent, I tend to get a bit of attention on opening day as students and parents walk up to our schools. Well, this year that attention was totally usurped by Eva, our therapy dog at Northview Elementary School, and I gladly let her have the spotlight. It was one of the best first-day-of-school memories ever: seeing the absolute joy on the faces of both students and parents as they approached Eva the puppy sitting calmly out front. Seeing the first timid kindergartener walk up that sidewalk and break into a smile—making a beeline toward Eva­—I knew we were doing something extraordinary.

Often, as districtwide projects like this take shape, the most difficult step in the process is gaining support from the superintendent or board. But in our case, not only did the idea and initial financial support start with me, the superintendent, but we even received sponsorships from two board members and our school attorney. The best part? Donations continue to come in for this wonderful program.  We are always getting calls from citizens asking how they can donate toward either a specific pup or the project as a whole.

An Unbelievable Oppawtunity

So how did we get this “puppy project,” as we call it, established and supported without taxpayer funds?  I first made the decision to target key sponsors—not just to ask for money, but to give them an opportunity to sponsor a specific puppy. I started with my top go-to community donors, making it clear that they were receiving the first right of refusal to sponsor this unbelievable opportunity to help students and staff. Not one donor refused the offer.  I also let everyone know, as a show of my total belief in this project, that my husband and I were donating the first $1,600 to secure the pups once they were born. I wanted everyone to know how important this was to me as superintendent, and how important it would be for our students and staff.

I am fairly accomplished at raising funds, but I have never raised $12,000 in under four hours just by sending seven emails. That speaks as much to the quality of our community as it does to the importance of this project. The secured funds went toward the initial purchase of the dogs, supplies needed for the handlers to get set up, and training.

Once a local trainer agreed to train all of our pups at the same time, we dedicated our Sunday evenings to training sessions—”staff meetings”—in one of our elementary school cafeterias. The pups are currently finishing Puppy 101 training; when they pass, they’ll enter official Therapy Dog Training I and then II. When we engaged in this process, we made sure handlers and sponsors were aware that if any of the dogs did not have the proper demeanor after Puppy 101, the handler would then have a very nice family dog. However—much like your own district, no doubt—we have the highest expectations for our students, and our puppies are no exception. So far, they’re all passing.

Puppy Power

If you are not familiar with the powerful impact therapy dogs and other animals can make, there’s a ton of research available to make the case. According to UCLA Health, simply petting an animal promotes positive chemical responses in the brain (releasing serotonin, prolactin, and oxytocin—all hormones that can elevate mood). Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) can also lower blood pressure, diminish overall pain, ease anxiety, promote mobility, and even help you learn. Research also finds that children with autism can form deeper bonds with animals than with humans and are more likely to use language and interact socially during AAT than during standard therapy.

I’ve seen firsthand over the years the impact dogs make on both students and staff... and a superintendent!  I’ve witnessed nonverbal students say “dog” as a pup snuggles onto their lap. I’ve watched smiles appear on the faces of sullen or anxious students. I have heard adults say, “I just need to see that dog today!”

And I cannot think of a better way to grab the attention of 60 second-graders than to tell them that if they get the right answer, Moose will do a trick. I found myself wanting to raise my hand, and I was pretty sure I did not have the right answer! Animals impact us in so many ways—comforting, calming, and offering companionship without fear of judgment or rejection.

From the start, we have been cognizant of the possibility that some students or staff may suffer from allergies, or even a fear of dogs. Like any other environmental allergy, we’ll handle any issue on an individual basis. Make no mistake, like anybody in the business of education, we have a handful of naysayers. However, we know the positive impact outweighs these few concerns. Overall, our newest Viking Puppy Crew has caused quite a stir in our community—a positive one. In the end, I can honestly say that it’s totally fine when smiling students run right past me to hug one of our dogs­—it puts a smile on my face, too.

Two of the Ten English Cream Golden Retrievers during Puppy 101 training.

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