Chris Turnbull, Principal of Bear Tavern Elementary School, first learned of Attitudes in Reverse and its therapy dogs a few years ago from a staff member. The school then invited AIR to participate in its Wellness Day.
AIR Dogs have been visiting the school for special programs ever since.
“Tricia would walk down the hallway with her dogs and the kids would just light up,” said Chris. “It just changed the whole day for those kids.”
Now throught the partnership with the Hopewell Valley Regional School District, dogs owned by district staff members have been certified by AIR for pet therapy. Chris’s dog, Brody, is now among those certified.
“Just seeing the impact of the other (HVRSD) therapy dogs have on their schools and how much having a regular go-to dog in that building made a difference to the students made me consider training with Brody,” he said. “We had the need and he seemed right for it. He was so happy and loveable.”
Before entering the program, Chris thought there was a specific type needed to be a successful therapy dog. Having adopted Brody at the height of the pandemic in March 2020, he was too young to train with the first HVRSD cohort. But after months of training, they received their therapy dog certification and AKC Novice Trick title.
“I was nervous that morning of the test,” he recalled. “But he was so ready and so focused and I think it was a testament to all the training. It was a proud moment for him and showed how well prepared he was.”
Chris, who is currently pursuing a doctorate on mindfulness in schools and student stress, feels the therapy dogs are an important addition to students’ experience.
“The therapy dogs – and AIR specifically – allow you to take the school environment to another level . You’re creating this excitement and feeling of home and connection,” he said. “When there’s a therapy dog it brings out this energy and enthusiasm with the students and it works on so many levels.”
“The amount of stress that even students in elementary school can feel is incredible,” said Chris. “The impact the dogs can make in an emergency situation is wonderful, but it’s also important to have the dogs there on a regular basis.”
Chris’s goal is for Brody’s presence in school to provide comfort for students and provide an atmosphere of safety and connection.
“It’s such a huge tool to have in your toolbelt and it’s great to create this environment proactively because you never know what’s going on with a student,” he said. “Being with a therapy dog might be the only connection that child has that day.”
“It can change their path,” he continued. “The dogs will help students feel more comfortable and when they feel comfortable, they’re going to take risks and participate more. On another level, if you’re feeling emotionally sad or upset or have an issue with a friend or family it can work on that level too, to make them feel more comfortable to talk about issues.”
Chris is excited to start bringing Brody to school before the new term officially begins. He’s hoping to bring Brody to the school’s Kindergarten camp – which is offered for 2 weeks before school starts.
“It’ll give him a chance to get his feet wet and also to get the students off to an exciting start,” said Chris. “When students – and staff – can associate school with a place that is warm and supportive and happy, that I think can make a huge difference. I’m so exited about having Brody be a part of making our school better.”