WESTON, WV (WOWK) — The pandemic disrupted the normal way of life for many students.
School leaders say it has left young people feeling more apprehensive than usual about going to school. So earlier this year, West Virginia’s Governor and First Lady came up with a program using therapy dogs to help make school a little easier.
Lewis County High School is the most recent school to get a dog through the Friends with Paws program.
“That is a good snuggle, good girl,” said Sarah Linger as she practiced some commands with therapy dog Jasper, a one-year-old yellow lab.
Linger is Jasper’s primary handler, and she is the Communities in Schools Site Coordinator for Lewis County High School.
Jasper is one of three dogs placed in West Virginia schools so far this year to offer companionship and comfort to students.
“She’s going to be so excited for the first day of school,” Linger said about Jasper. “The kids are going to be so excited to see her.”
The therapy dogs are working with the Communities in Schools program, which helps empower students and give them the tools they need to stay in school and succeed in life.
Linger operates a Care Closet with articles of clothing for students who need them. She also keeps a stash of hygiene products and snacks, and she helps connect students and their families with other resources.
Linger is hoping Jasper will open pathways to better communication with students.
“I came by one day, and the football team was here eating lunch, and as soon as I came around the corner, all of the football players stand up, and they are like ‘Jasper is here,’ and half of them just get up and run over,” Linger said. “If it would’ve just been me walking by, they wouldn’t have paid one bit of attention.”
First Lady Cathy Justice said there have already been several success stories.
“One of the dogs had a big dog cushion that it slept on,” First Lady Justice said. “It was in the site coordinator’s office. There was a little boy asleep on the bed with the dog. Those are things you can’t explain, you just have to see it and really know how special it is.”
Jasper and the other dogs were trained at Ultimate Canine in Westfield, Indiana. Linger and some backup handlers went through training too.
The dogs know numerous commands and are screened to make sure they will do well in an active school environment.
Jasper met incoming freshmen at a “Pup-Rally” several weeks ago. She will meet the whole student body when she welcomes them back for the fall semester.
“She is going to help a lot with stress level, anxiety level, and just overall having a good day — having a better day because Jasper is here,” Linger said.
Principal John Whiston is one of Jasper’s backup handlers.
“For a lot of kids, this is their happy place,” Whiston said. “You add a dog into the happy place, and it is just going to make them feel better.”
With four paws and a wagging tail in the hallways, there are plenty of new opportunities to help students have a successful school year.
“We are very excited to have Jasper here,” Linger said. “I think just people seeing the dog with their whole eyes light up, their attitude changes. I don’t know what it is about a dog. I do it too.”
First Lady Justice said there will be seven more therapy dogs added to schools before the end of 2022. Ten dogs are anticipated to be placed in 2023.