Hope comes in many forms. For the students at SHARP School, it is in the the wisdom of a 6-year-old goldendoodle — a service dog named Hope — and her handler, Pam Reinke.
Hope is one of several pet therapy dogs from Gabriel’s Angels that visit the school throughout the month. SHARP is part of Mesa Public Schools and services the special education community from kindergarten through twelfth grade.
Its students are at different stages in their emotional development, and the dogs are able to connect with the students.
“The dogs teach our students the same things we work on each day, but in a different way,” explained Cathy Weigler, school counselor at SHARP. “The kids respond to the dogs without behaviors because it’s all non-verbal, and therefore learning becomes intrinsic. Students develop relationships with the dogs, fostering trust and unconditional positive regard. Seven core behaviors are targeted during therapy sessions: attachment, confidence, self-regulation, affiliation, awareness, tolerance and respect.”
The therapy dogs and their handlers meet with groups of 10 or fewer students for 30 minutes, every other week. The time includes an activity like brushing the dogs, reading stories, listening to the dog’s heartbeat, brushing the dog’s teeth, learning pet first aid and other practical skills.
Teaching students about overcoming adversity
In January 2014, Hope was in a car accident and almost died. She pulled through but lost her left rear leg. Students shed tears and wrestled with emotions when they heard about Hope’s accident. Students learned about empathy and expressed their thoughts on hand-written cards.
“Hope would smell the cards from the students,” Reinke recalled. “She would look at me with that ‘When do we get to go back to school?’ look that she associates with the scent of our visiting bag.”
They returned to school three weeks after the accident. With a gentle touch, students ran their fingers through her soft fur with the most love they could find in their hearts, taking extra care to avoid touching the incision. Curious about the injury, they peppered the handler with questions like “Will her leg grow back?” or “What did they do with her leg?”
“We explained that her leg was in the place that they put all legs that are broken,” Reinke said.
Students self-identified with Hope’s injuries. Their stories and statements of their own illnesses or issues were brought to the forefront. They felt a sense of ownership and responsibility for their pal Hope. To commemorate the special year, Gabriel’s Angels made clay paw imprints for each student.
When asked how pet therapy dogs make a difference in the lives of these students, Reinke said, “The last thing I heard when they were given Hope’s paw print were these words, ‘I know that no matter what might happen to me, I can get through it because of what Hope has been through. If she can do all she does with three legs, I can handle anything!’”