Dave Sherwin’s first experience with the AIR Dogs: Paws for Minds therapy dogs was during one of their visits to the local high school.
“Watching the dogs interact with the high school students before exams and seeing the students smile and light up when they see the dogs,” recalled Dave. “Students of any age really respond to these dogs.”
After watching the first cohort of dogs from Hopewell Valley School District complete therapy training with AIR, Dave knew he wanted to join the program with his dog, Hazel.
“She’s so eager to be around people. She loves interactions with anybody from kids to adults,” said Dave, K-12 Supervisor, Language Arts and Media Centers. “And she’s super soft and everybody seems to love to pet her. She’s a big fluff ball.”
While her temperament made her an excellent therapy dog candidate, Dave recalled, she benefited from the intensive training.
“She really looked forward to being in training, but in the beginning she just wanted to play – every dog caught her attention,” he said. “After some time, she began to understand that this is work, it isn’t play time. It was really cool to see her progression and see her grow in that way.”
For Dave, who has a busy work and home life, support from home was key.
“They’ve been cheering me on to do this,” said Dave of his two school-age children. “They became part of the training at home.”
The training also provided some interesting surprises.
“How many unique scenarios there can be in a school? I wondered before we started,” said Dave. “Apparently there are a lot from people with crutches to the elevator in our building. The fire alarm was terrifying at first – but got used to it.”
“Practicing for these situations really changed our relationship,” he continued. “I learned to reassure her, and she learned to trust me. I feel our bond grew from there and her trust in me grew.”
Dave said the timing of this therapy program has worked with the district’s goals.
“We’ve been continuing to pay attention to the social and emotional needs of our students and thinking of creating ways to engage them and have students be supported,” he said. “Dogs are a fun and powerful piece of that toolkit and AIR’s program really complements our overall efforts.”
Dave, who enjoys various hobbies in his spare time – including travel, disc golf and kayaking – compared his school experiences to those the district hopes to offer.
“I look back to my own childhood, that unconditional acceptance and comfort of a dog,” said Dave. “To be able to bring that kind of healing into the work world, to have my companion my buddy there, but also to see her interact with students. Seeing her making them smile and changing their attitudes and how they’re feeling. Seeing how eager people seem to be to want to interact with her – teachers, staffers, and students alike. It’s an easy way to have a conversation with the dog there.”