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Meet Gracie: a unique friend for emotional support at Lincoln
She joined us a few months ago as a therapy dog. Now she is part of the community. Discover how Gracie helps students with social learning and emotional wellbeing.
Curly hair, bright black eyes, and a kind presence. That's how Gracie is. Originally from The Netherlands, she joined Lincoln as a full-time resident school therapy dog on April 18 of 2022. At first, she was just a visitor, who accompanied Melissa Cavender, one of Lincoln’s librarians. Then, a stop by became a frequent meeting and, eventually, she became such a special company!
Gracie embraced our community to bring emotional support with her unique charm and positivity. To know her better, it’s important to understand her training.
What is a therapy dog?
Children need allies that will be there for them through thick and thin. Gracie offers that. As a puppy she had lessons with two trainers before attending therapy dog classes in the United States to prepare and take an exam. Not long after that, she and her owner Melissa were a registered team with Project Canine, in Washington state. They volunteered in public libraries and an assisted living home.
"With their strong loyalty and deep affection toward humans, therapy dogs assist in the treatment of elderly people, disabled or sick people in improving their mental or physical functions," explains the International Therapy Dog Association on their official website. Usually, therapy dogs are in hospitals, nursing homes, and also in schools.
When Gracie and Melissa arrived in Argentina, the duet took another course and exam to be registered with PetPartners Argentina. But, besides being certified as a therapy dog, she has the qualities to be one: she is very social, serene, and fond of our curious young learners.
WHY HAVE A THERAPY DOG?
Our canine friend is not something every school has. Her presence brings good energy and lifts everyone’s spirits. Gracie is a reminder of the importance of Social and Emotional Learning, known as SEL. According to the National University:
Social-emotional learning (SEL) is a methodology that helps students of all ages to better comprehend their emotions, to feel those emotions fully, and demonstrate empathy for others. These learned behaviors are then used to help students make positive, responsible decisions; create frameworks to achieve their goals, and build positive relationships with others.
SEL is essential for a child’s growth because it gives a solid base for developing emotional intelligence. If students can work on that ability to understand and better handle their feelings, they have a forever tool to become resilient and achieve whatever they put their minds into.
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF GRACIE
Gracie’s power goes beyond her cuteness. As a therapy dog, she starts her day in the elementary school library, welcoming learners who want to read to her. Then she wanders through the halls of the school to get the opportunity to meet other learners and staff members.
Once a week, she pops into the middle and high school library for lunchtime sessions with the older students. And her social life does not stop there. Gracie also volunteers at an assisted living home in Vicente López. She plays, she eats, and she wanders around. What is the magic in that?
HOW DOES GRACIE HELP OUR COMMUNITY?
How does she help our learners with stress, anxiety, nerves, or insecurities? Here is the trick:
- She gives love without asking anything in return, which lifts self-esteem and enhances the value of every person. "Gracie makes me feel calm and happy because I can pet her and all my worries just disappear," said one of our Grade 3 students.
- She is a non judgemental listener, so students feel safe around her. "It feels really nice when I read to Gracie because she feels excited to see me. She doesn't care if I make a mistake. I am glad there is a dog in the library," added another Grade 3 student.
- She is loyal and supportive. It is good medicine to expel feelings like loneliness or to cheer students as well as adults when they are having a challenging day. "I like Gracie being here because if you come to the library and your friends don't want to come, you can go to Gracie and still have someone," explained one of the Grade 4 students.
- She is a social butterfly and kindly encourages everyone to be one as well. For example, one student plays with her. Then another comes along. Before you notice, you have potential friendships developed in a safe space of pure acceptance. "For me it was very comforting to greet Gracie, I knew that after petting her I would return to my class with a smile," commented one of the faculty members.
The button line is: kids can be themselves with Gracie. They can learn, play, make mistakes, and have the comfort of our fluffy friend. "Gracie is great company and made my day better just by being there," revealed a Grade 11 student. It’s a companionship that shows that, despite hard times and difficulties, there is unconditional support.
PROOF OF THE GRACIE EFFECT
Multiple types of research show the impact a therapy dog has on the well-being and mental health of the students. Some academics of Troy University wrote a paper called “The mental health benefits of having dogs on college campuses that shows the stress-relieving benefits of our canine friends”. In their investigation, they explained:
Somerville, Kruglikova, Robertson, Hanson, and MacLin (2008) found both male and female college students experienced a decrease in diastolic blood pressure immediately after holding a dog or cat. Interestingly, this reduction in blood pressure occurred only after contact with the animal, not during the actual contact.
At Washington State University (WSU), professor Patricia Pendry, of the SWU’s Department of Human Development, and graduate student Jaymie L. Vandagriff published a paper called “Animal Visitation Program (AVP) Reduces Cortisol Levels of University Students: A Randomized Controlled Trial”. In this investigation, they demonstrated that programs like these can alleviate stress: "Students in our study that interacted with cats and dogs had a significant reduction in cortisol, a major stress hormone." She comments that "the reduction of stress hormones may, over time, have significant benefits for physical and mental health".
Adding to that, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine Marta Vieira offered an explanation of the physical response humans have towards animals. In Petable, a site dedicated to pets, she explained: "When a known animal stares at us our body releases oxytocin. When we stare back the pet will also release the same hormone. This hormone is responsible for mother and child bonding, altruism and trust". Vieira also concluded that "that’s why spending time with your pet helps reducing anxiety and keeping the good mood".
PAWS TO CARE
So, how does Gracie fit in our school? It is a constant process of learning, understanding, and spreading the word about her. At Lincoln, we have Paws to Care: a therapy dog program that encourages all learners to pause and take care of themselves by interacting with Gracie.
"We have taught the students to ask for consent before petting her: May I pet Gracie?," shared Melissa. "Asking for consent is part of the Lincoln SEL curriculum and it encourages safety around all dogs," she added. Also, to guarantee the best experience possible for everyone, it is important to inform parents about the therapy dog at school, so they can notify about allergies or any fears their children may have regarding dogs.
Gracie is many things. She is a therapy dog, a friend, and a cute pet. But, most of all, she is a wellness agent. Along with our counselors, she is at Lincoln to help our students in their constant growth to become communicators, navigators, researchers, and agents of change.