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Arizona schools use therapy dogs to assist mental health

Cassy Salinas plays with Sawyer at Mountain View High School on Nov. 19, 2019, in Mesa Ariz. At Mountain View, students visit with Sawyer while experiencing panic attacks or thoughts of suicide. Sawyer is also brought in when teachers discuss difficult topics such as the Holocaust. (Carly Bowling/The Arizona Republic via AP)

MESA, Ariz. (AP) — An Arizona school district is using four-legged therapy counselors as part of a pilot program to help students deal with issues related to mental health, officials said.

The PAWsitive Peers therapy dog program was implemented in five schools in Mesa, The Arizona Republic reports.

Students at East Valley Academy, Johnson Elementary School, Kino Junior High School, Rhodes Junior High School, and Mountain View High School interact with dogs in counselors’ offices and classroom visits.

School employees volunteer to adopt the dogs that are trained using a curriculum developed at Yale University to create a bond between humans and the animals, officials said.

At Mountain View, students visit with a dog named Sawyer while experiencing panic attacks or thoughts of suicide. Sawyer is also brought in when teachers discuss difficult topics such as the Holocaust.

Mountain View Counselor Ariel Koch adopted Sawyer in Flagstaff after he was found wandering when he was 8 months old.

The dog with black, brown and white hair draws students to Koch’s office who may not have visited before. Students who said they only came to visit Sawyer have discussed issues such as depression or parental divorce, Koch said.

“They don’t have to look at me and they don’t have to make it like they came to talk about that, so they can kind of sit and pet him,” Koch said.

The Maricopa County Health Department said 29 children ages 11 to 17 died by suicide in 2018, up from 23 the previous year. Two Mountain View students died by suicide in 2019, officials said.

Republican Gov. Doug Ducey signed the Mitch Warnock Act in September. The law expanding suicide prevention and awareness training in public schools is named after a teen who died by suicide in 2016.

The idea for the PAWsitive Peers program came after a team of Mesa Public Schools administrators visited schools in New York City using therapy dogs.

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The Associated Press

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