During the pandemic, our pets played a significant role in providing companionship and emotional support while the world around us was filled with uncertainty. For children, the benefits of interacting with animals can be even more significant, promoting a sense of support and comfort that helps boost confidence and reduces anxiety.
Melissa Brady, the principal at Linden Hill Elementary School in Pike Creek, has witnessed this benefit firsthand. Prior to the pandemic, Brady worked with a local pet therapy organization, Newark-based PAWS for People, to provide a pet-assisted literacy program for students; a trained volunteer and a therapy dog (or cat or bunny) would visit the school to facilitate reading in small group sessions.
“Animals really do reduce anxiety and help kids relax,” Brady says. “Some kids connect with the animals better than they can connect with an adult or a textbook. It really breaks down those defenses and helps put them at ease.”
When the pandemic hit and schools shut down, the reading program was put on hold, but a chance meeting in the community recently brought PAWS back into the school in a new role.
Brady learned that organization had begun providing therapy teams at vaccination clinics for children. “It just so happened that we had a clinic scheduled at the school a few weeks later and we thought it would be a great idea to give it a try,” she says.
In January, three PAWS volunteers and therapy dogs, including Fred the basset hound, showed up to surprise the kids and support them through the vaccination process.
“It was a great distraction for the kids, but it was also very calming and therapeutic,” Brady says. “The volunteers were so patient with the kids, and I think they also set the adults’ minds at ease.”
Now that COVID-19 restrictions are being relaxed, the PAWS for Reading program has been reinstated at Linden Hill, and volunteers are once again coming in to start working with the kindergarten students.
“The vaccination clinic has served as the gateway to get everything going again,” Brady says. “We’re so happy to have the dogs and the volunteers back in our school. It really does make a difference.”