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Elementary school gets its first therapy dog

🕐 3 min read

An AP Member Exchange shared by the Muscatine Journal.

MUSCATINE, Iowa (AP) — Finley, a five-month-old labradoodle, patrols the hallways of Mulberry Elementary with his trainer on Monday morning eager to greet students. He wags his tail wildly and stops to smell a neat row of snow boots near one of the classrooms.

His trainer, Lindsay Welsch, tugs at his leash.

“Come on, Finley,” she says.

A second later, Finley turns his attention to a little girl in a pink coat and matching beany.

Her face lights up.

“Finley!” she greets him warmly.

Finley positions his head near her hand awaiting dutifully for a petting. The little girl obliges. Other children who encounter Finley in the hallway wave or sign his name by creating a circle with their thumb and forefinger and waving their hand near their hip.

When Finley first arrived at the school a couple of weeks ago, the children were so excited that they shouted his name whenever they saw him, said Welsch, who is also an instructional coach at the school.

“We tell them, ‘Can you imagine if you were walking down the hall and 20 different people were saying your name, how confusing that would be?’ We have deaf and hard of hearing students too, so they taught us the sign language name for Finley,” she said, adding that she encourages the children to sign at Finley rather than yell his name.

The Muscatine Journal (http://bit.ly/2gFSdIP ) reports Finley is Mulberry Elementary’s first therapy dog and one of his many jobs is to help students cope with sadness or anxiety.

“We had one little girl last week who just had a moment in the morning where she was missing her mom, so we were like . ‘do you want to go down and see Finley?’ and . probably within one minute, she was giggling and happy,” Welsch says.

Back at the school, Finley enters a first-grade class. He walks across the room, past a colorful rug to his doggy bed. He lies on the plush bed for a moment and the children immediately follow. Several tiny hands pet his head and his back. Moments later, Finley gets up and walks to one of the tables where Kaylee Cochran sits patiently.

She smiles and pets him and he climbs up on her knees, his head resting on her little shoulder. Kaylee wraps her tiny arms around his neck. They both seem immensely happy.

First-grade teacher and Finley’s trainer Shannon Mergen says she’s always wanted the school to have a therapy dog. She previously had bunnies and guinea pigs, but it wasn’t the same.

“You couldn’t exactly lend them out,” she said.

So when the school’s PTO offered to buy the school a therapy dog, she was really excited.

“My vision included going out and helping kids (with) special needs and anxiety,” she said.

She and Welsch take turns training Finley and when he isn’t in school, he stays in one of their homes.

And the children sometimes help with Finley’s training too.

“We use a little bit of his training as reward for students who need a behavior goal to work toward,” Mergen said, adding that if children stick to their behavior goal, they get to help with Finley’s training.

And it helps them feel a sense of accomplishment.

“These kids see him in the hallway and they tell their friends ‘um, I’m one of Finley’s trainers too,'” Welsch said.

Finley is one of four therapy dogs in the district. Jefferson Elementary, Grant Elementary and West Middle School have their own therapy dogs.

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