A passing comment led to a program that is benefiting students and community members alike in Ottumwa, Iowa.
Jen Chesnut teaches science at Ottumwa High School and would often bring her Goldendoodle dog, Gus, to school with her on teacher work days. One day a school administrator remarked that Gus was so well-behaved that he should come along to school all the time.
The idea took hold, and Jen began looking into options to train and certify Gus as a therapy dog. Therapy dogs are used to provide emotional and physical support in a number of settings, including schools, hospitals, and nursing homes.
Gus began the training program when he was four years old with the goal of passing a certification test through the Therapy Dogs International organization.
“He was already a well-behaved dog,” said Jen. “When we decided to move ahead with training him as a therapy dog, we went to an advanced obedience class and a therapy dog preparation class in Des Moines.”
Special training for therapy dogs focuses on a number of skills beyond basic obedience, including making sure the animal can ignore other dogs, will not be too social with people, will be comfortable with equipment in schools, libraries and other facilities, and learning how to approach people who may be in wheelchairs or using crutches or walkers.
After about six months of focused training, Gus passed the therapy certification test on his first try. In 2016 the Ottumwa Board of Education approved a board policy on therapy dogs, allowing Jen and Gus to fill that role. She began bringing him to her classroom for a few hours a day, a few days each week.
Shortly after Gus completed his training, Jen also got a new puppy. Piper is a Shepadoodle who began obedience and therapy dog training at six months old.
“We weren’t able to fit the Des Moines classes into our schedule, so I trained Piper at home and around town,” said Jen. “We worked a lot in the aisles of Tractor Supply to get used to being around people and maneuvering around equipment, and we practiced in the lobby of Pipestone Vet Clinic to be able to ignore other dogs and pets.”
Piper was able to take the therapy dog certification test after she turned one year old, and also passed on her first try. She was the youngest dog to receive certification that day, said Jen.
Gus and Piper now share duties at Ottumwa High School.
“I take one of the dogs to school with me most days, unless we are planning laboratory work in science class that would present a safety issue,” she said. “They spend most of the time in my classroom and are available for students to sit with them during independent study time.”
Some students practice giving presentations to the dogs, and other students with test anxiety can spend time with the dogs to relax and help them focus. Both dogs have become important members of the school family, with Gus’ photo even appearing on the faculty page of last year’s yearbook!
“There are also times when the school social worker will bring students who are stressing out or having a difficult time to spend time with the dog to help them regroup,” she said.
Both dogs play roles in other community programs. Jen takes Piper to visit the behavioral health unit of a local hospital once a week. She walks through the ward to visit patients in their rooms. Gus has been visiting the local public library for about two years for program where children can read to him.
“For many young students, reading aloud in class is stressful. They can practice reading aloud to Gus without the stress and have more fun,” said Jen. “I’ve heard from some parents that some students have started reading to their pets at home, too.”
Gus and Piper visit Pipestone Vet Services in Ottumwa regularly for yearly wellness checkups, vaccinations and prevention programs. In addition, a veterinarian must sign a certificate each year to verify that therapy dogs are healthy for interaction with students, patients and others during their activities.
Dr. Lori Hickie, veterinarian at the Pipestone Veterinary Clinic in Ottumwa has been impressed with Gus, Piper and other therapy dogs, as well as with owners like Jen.
“It is phenomenal to see how interactions with the therapy dogs can have such a positive impact. The dogs just seem to have a sixth sense to be able to provide whatever is needed to help students read, study or focus better,” said Dr. Hickie. “It also takes a very astute and mindful pet owner to train and care for therapy dogs.”