BY DESTINY TSUMAS

Three therapy dogs have been added to the staff at Celeste Henkel Elementary School since summer.

Last year Highland K9 Connection trainers visited the school with their therapy dogs to read with the students. The success and noticeable connection between the dogs and students planted a seed.

When Emily Nesbitt was brought on as a new hire at the school, she suggested her therapy dog Hulk become part of the staff. Nesbitt and Hulk, a boxer/pit bull mix, worked for a children’s advocacy center in Charlotte before she was hired by Iredell-Statesville Schools.

Hulk was welcomed without reservations.

Two other employees at Celeste Henkel saw the impact Hulk had on the students and wondered if their dogs would be a good fit for therapy as well.

Tonjia Behrent and Ashley Weber began the process of certifying their dogs for therapy. First the dogs had to go through a temperament test and then earn certifications to work as therapy dogs.

Toby, a German shepherd/Husky mix, along with Hildi, a German shepherd, got their certifications this summer.

Principal Frank Saraco said he can’t imagine not having the dogs at school. They have helped him deal with his fears of large dogs, and they are making a huge impact on students at his school daily.

Some students have anxiety in an environment where all the adults are wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but the dogs don’t have on masks and the students can see their smiling faces and it puts them at ease, Saraco explained.

The dogs help students with anxiety and behavioral problems, while building confident readers and much more. The dogs, Saraco said, don’t judge the students and create a safe place where they can read aloud without worry.

The students even write letters to the dogs and the dogs “write back.” In a time of so much anxiety, especially in our schools, the dogs have brought much needed comfort for students and staff alike.

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