Beaver Meadow welcomes ‘Hazel,’ Concord School District’s first therapy dog 

  • The Wall of Hazel at Beaver Meadow Elementarty School on Thursday, November 21, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Bryson Hannan, a third grader at Beaver Meadow Elementary School, scratches Hazel the therapy dog under the chin at the school on Nov. 21.

  • Hazel, the Beaver Meadow therapy dog rests, her eyes after being read to by students on Nov. 21. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Hazel the therapy dog listens as third grader Damien Shea-Sargeant reads a book at Beaver Meadow Elementary School. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 11/29/2019 2:44:38 PM

Damien Shea-Sargeant sounded out each word in the picture book carefully as he read.

“Bernese Mountain Dogs are calm, friendly and sweet,” the third-grader said, turning a page decorated with pictures of puppies in the children’s book titled Bernese Mountain Dogs.

His audience, a 3-year-old black, white and brown Bernese Mountain Dog named Hazel, was patient and attentive, laying down beside where Shea-Sargeant sat on the floor of his counselor’s office at Beaver Meadow School. When he was done reading, he patted Hazel on the head.

“Thanks, Hazel,” he said, beaming proudly.

Counselor Ashley Barsaleau handed Shea-Sargeant a bookmark with a photo of Hazel on it that said, “I read with Hazel today!”

“Great job, sweetheart,” she said, giving Shea-Sargeant a high-five.

Hazel is one of the newest members of the Beaver Meadow School community. At its November meeting, the Concord School Board approved a policy allowing therapy dogs in the Concord School District.

With the exception of service dogs, a school might seem like an unusual place to see a dog – but it’s something schools are seeing more often. Unlike service dogs, therapy dogs are not trained to work with a specific individual, but to provide comfort to any person in a variety of circumstances.

Therapy dogs have been integrated into police departments, including Concord’s, to help with victims of trauma and to promote community engagement. Barsaleau, Hazel’s handler, said therapy dogs have been used in schools to help improve academic performance, behavior and promote a culture of acceptance.

One major benefit is the improvements to student literacy.

Reading, especially reading aloud, is something that often makes kids self-conscious, Barsaleau said. Therapy dogs allow children to focus on the animal while they read instead of their surroundings.

“The self-confidence is huge. For some children who don’t like to read and don’t like to read aloud, it’s allowed them that safe opportunity to read and to engage in reading,” Barsaleau ​​​​said. “We are already seeing that Hazel has made a difference here.”

Four-legged therapy

Therapy dogs have already been incorporated into school communities in the state, including nearby Dunbarton Elementary School. Lynx, a poodle mix, was brought to the school to enhance social-emotional learning, according to the school’s website.

Hazel is Barsaleau’s personal dog, but Barsaleau said she has been training her to be a therapy dog since she was 8-weeks-old. Barsaleau’s husband is a firefighter with the Londonderry Fire Department, and she brought Hazel there to spend time with first responders who have been diagnosed with PTSD.

Hazel went through the Pet Partners program, a national training program for therapy dogs.

Barsaleau ​​​​​​said she wanted to bring Hazel into Beaver Meadow to help children feel more at ease during counseling sessions. Barsaleau worked with Beaver Meadow’s principal, Michele Vance, to draft a policy for therapy dogs for the school board to review.

The policy outlines the process to get a therapy dog approved in school (it must go through the superintendent’s office and be renewed each year) and requires that each handler be registered with an organization like Pet Partners.

The therapy dog must be clean, well-groomed, in good health, housebroken and immunized against diseases common to dogs. The animal must be leashed or under the control of its handler at all times.

The animal must venture only into authorized areas. They will not be permitted in classrooms of students who have dog allergies or fear of dogs. If these rules are broken, a therapy dog will be removed.

Vance said the school had taken surveys with parents about how they felt about the prospect of having a therapy dog in the school. They spoke to parents of kids who have dog allergies and made plans with those who had concerns.

Hazel will be consistently groomed to limit shedding and the custodial staff has been asked to pay extra attention to eliminating dog hair in school spaces.

“We would never expose a student to Hazel or bring her into their space, like a classroom, if it impacted their health,” Vance said.

Welcoming Hazel

Barsaleau ​​​​​​said Beaver Meadow has started to gradually introduce Hazel into the school community. They started with meet-and-greets with parents and with each classroom to go over expectations.

She said the kids were incredibly excited to have Hazel around.

“Animals improve just about everything,” she said. “Who doesn’t like to see a dog and that friendly face that is non-judgemental and always caring and always accepting?”

Starting in December, Hazel will be at the school one day every week, and they hope to increase her time with the kids in the future.

In Barsaleau’s office, she has a wall of student drawings and pictures called the “Wall of Hazel.” She said morale in general has been boosted since Hazel’s arrival.

The whole district has been able to be involved in welcoming Hazel. A graphic design class at Concord High created the bookmarks that are given out to students.

Barsaleau said Hazel will be working mostly at Beaver Meadow for now, but that she hopes to be able to bring her to other schools in the district as needed.

“I think that if this goes well, and it’s successful, I would love to see there be animals available to all students at all levels,” she said. “That’s the goal.”

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