All is wellness with canine companion at St. Greg’s

Masha Scheele Photo
Wellness dog Ginger is shown here at St. Gregory School with handler and Grade 2 teacher Mary-Jean Newman

Masha Scheele

Ginger was just arriving at St. Gregory Elementary School during recess when a little girl in kindergarten walked towards the school entrance with tears streaming down her cheeks.

Ginger was brought up to the girl, who was still crying, but after a short interaction the girl forgot what her tears were all about and turned right back to the playground to enjoy recess.

It’s just another day on the job for Ginger, a multi-generational Australian Labradoodle who was born on June 17, 2018 to two very well trained parents who were also assisting dogs.

“It happens constantly, when they see her, she de-escalated anxiety, behaviour if a child is having a moment, if they’re just not having a good day, lonely, sad, that’s part of wellness,” said Mary-Jean Newman, a Grade 2 teacher at the school and Ginger’s handler.

Newman first thought about bringing a wellness dog into the school after reading an article about the benefits of dogs for students. She then researched the idea and found Danielle Clarke, an animal behaviour specialist from Dreamcatcher Nature-Assisted Therapy.

Dreamcatcher is a private practice in Alberta that offers animal assisted therapy and has been educating others in the practice for the past 10 years.

“Dogs in schools are becoming very popular, and people wanting to bring their pets everywhere with them is very rampant. But really wanting to do it in an ethical way, really seeking out the best information, and being willing to invest time, energy, and funds into doing it well, I think they’re at the forefront,” said Clarke.

“This seems to be the flagship, not only in Alberta the only program of its kind, but Western Canada. The only program that’s actually going to have a fully trained and full-time wellness dog.”

Before moving to Hinton, Ginger was screened as a puppy by her breeder in Calgary and by Clarke based on the needs of the school.

“You’re always taking a bit of a gamble with a puppy, because just like children, we can hope they’re going to become a doctor at two years old but we don’t know what they’re actually going to turn into. But she screened out beautifully as a puppy,” said Clarke.

When Ginger turned six months old, she began visiting the school to socialize, train, and get used to being around children.

“I will say that she loves kids. Sometimes she can be a little bit aloof with adults, but around the kids she’s really great. She’s definitely in the right place,” said Newman.

Beyond Ginger’s calming effect on children, she has also inspired Newman to empower her students in body language observation using bingo sheets for noticing Ginger’s subtle canine body language points.

“They’re learning, they’re able to go and educate their families and the community at large about calming signals and what does it mean when she licks her lips and what is this and that. They’re becoming little canine experts,” said Clarke.

A lot of the staff at the school have gone through training sessions with Clarke, but as her handler, Newman’s training has been a lot more intensive.

“She’s undergoing courses through Dreamcatcher to learn to facilitate really effective animal assisted intervention in the school. Once she has completed her courses, they will be certified as a team to work together,” explained Clarke.

Other education professionals at the school can also undergo further training in order to work more closely with the wellness dog. After Ginger turns one, she will become certified to work in the school with children by undergoing a series of tests to examine various skills.

In September she will start coming to the school on a regular basis with the goal of her becoming a full-time wellness dog. 

“There are studies out there in animal assisted therapy but also in education of the multiple benefits of having animals around. There’s buzzwords like oxytocin releasing when petting the animals, lowering of heart rates all those things,” said Clarke.

Oxytocin is a hormone that is sometimes referred to in studies as the ‘cuddle hormone’.

Clarke said they also see animals as being motivators for children depending on if they want to have a relationship with that animal. Being able to build trust between the educators and the child,” said Clarke.

“[The dog] allows for another focus point in a dynamic between a professional and a child, often times children can feel intimidated in an adult-child dynamic so a dog helps to facilitate that.”

A common misnomer about Labradoodles is that they are hypoallergenic because they are limited in their shedding. However, they still have skin cells, dander and saliva that kids could be allergic to, but Ginger is as good as any dog can get, according to Newman.

With a few allergies in the school, they have taken precautions like permission forms for all the children and policies for which areas the dog is allowed in the school, what the dog can eat, where the dog can go to the bathroom, how the school is cleaned, when a child with severe allergies is allowed to enter a room the dog was previously in and other considerations.

But the belief is that Ginger will bring a new dynamic to the school; a way to help children in various situations. One thing is for sure, the students at St. Gregory Elementary School already love having her around, asking to pet her as she walks down the hallway, waving to her, and telling her that they love her.