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Pet therapy dog makes difference at OHS



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OHS students Ally Jaynes (left) and Tiffany Baumgras pet Gracie. Photo by Andrew Moser (click for larger version)
February 15, 2012 - Oxford High School's newest student is immediately carving out a hole in the entire student population's heart.

Gracie can be seen at the high school four days a week strolling the halls and visiting classrooms, helping calm students and offering hugs, unconditional love and affection for everyone she meets.

But the big difference between Gracie and the rest of the student population is she has big loving eyes, a wet nose and walks on all four legs.

According to Pamela Fine, a special education teacher at OHS, Gracie, a 2-year-old yellow lab, is the high school's pet therapy dog, a program that began when school resumed following winter break.

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So far, pet therapy has been a smashing success.

Fine said having a therapy dog at the high school level is not a new phenomenon; more and more high schools are beginning to incorporate pet therapy for special needs students due to the therapeutic nature a pet can provide.

"Research has shown people live longer when they have pets," she said. "They are stress reducers. The benefits (to a person's emotional state and stress level) of being around an animal that is always happy to see you and love you and you can hug and pet...are outstanding."

Most of the time Gracie can be found working with special needs students at the high school.

"They love her," Fine said. "She is always happy to see them. They call her over and she gets right up next to them (and) they get on the ground and hug her (and) talk baby talk."

Fine added that statistics show the number one bullied population in a school are special needs students.

"It's not always easy for them to be accepted...into different peer groups and have friendships and with Gracie, it's just everyday she is happy to see them," Fine said.

"She comes over and pushes up against them or wants them to hug her, and they are happy to see her and see something they can emotionally connect with," she added. "I know some kids look forward to coming to school because they are going to see her, and that always wasn't the case."

OHS English teacher Molly Darnell, who owns Gracie, said she was an "absolute lover" and "has more patience probably any person I know."

"I think it is a good fit for her because she is...that calm lover. She is an old soul," Darnell said.

Oxford High School principal Todd Dunckley said Gracie was brought in to help the school's special needs students continue to building a positive relationship.

"Pets don't make . . . judgments," Dunckley said. "They love us all and everybody feels that."

Fine said Gracie's affect on her students was instantaneous.

"I have students who have anger issues, who have difficultly controlling their emotions sometimes, and literally the second she came in the classroom, they were talking baby talk, they were hugging her, they all want to feed her and take her for walks," Fine said.

She added she was working with a student for months on trying to open up and not view the world in a negative light.

"She (Gracie) walks into the room and he's baby talk, he's up and petting her and he loves her," Fine said. "It's just a kinder, gentler side of him that he doesn't let the rest of us see that he let's Gracie see. It's been amazing."

Dunckley also noticed a positive change in students behavior. "Their whole accountability, responsibility and self esteem about how they go about their day is greatly noticeable," he said.

Fine said Gracie has a set schedule of where she will be, just like students, so staff knows where she is at all times.

It's not just special needs students whom are affected. Both Fine and Dunckley have noticed general population students taking a liking to Gracie as well.

Students were initially shocked to see Gracie walking the halls or in a classroom, but they started getting used to the idea of seeing Gracie everyday.

"They are starting to look for her and respond to her throughout the school," she said.

"There are lots of kids...who love to be around an animal, and we have lots of kids who are going through a lot of stress, a lot of family issues, school issues, and they will stop and hug her and ask if they can see her," Fine added.

It looks like Gracie is beginning to like all the love and attention. "When she sees me start to get ready, she starts doing circles around the house, excited to go and goes right by the door , acts totally excited," Darnell said.

According to Fine, Gracie whines and "goes crazy" when Darnell, doesn't take her to school.

"She just kinds of mopes and gets those sad eyes when she knows you are not going to be here," Darnell added.

Andrew Moser is a staff writer for the Oxford Leader.
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