CHARLESTON, WV (WOWK) – A new initiative is aiming to bring therapy dogs into schools across the Mountain State.

West Virginia Governor Jim Justice and First Lady Cathy Justice say the new initiative is called “Friends For Paws.” The program will place certified therapy dogs in schools throughout West Virginia to offer companionship and comfort to students.

“Our kids have been through you-know-what,” Gov. Justice said. “Two years of this pandemic has been really tough. It’s taken a mental toll on our kids beyond belief… When it boils right down to it, these dogs are able to alleviate stress and anxiety and do a lot of really great work.”

The initiative is a collaboration with West Virginia Communities in Schools, a nonprofit dedicated to helping student’s reach their full potential.

First Lady Cathy Justice says the state has been working on developing this project for about a year and a half. She says the state has chosen a reputable company to employ the therapy dogs from and that the animals have been vetted through a screening process to find those that would be the best fit for the schools.

“When you go into schools that have a therapy dog, it is an amazing feeling,” First Lady Justice said. “They feel right at home, and it’s incredibly uplifting for children who may be struggling or grieving in their lives. So this is a really wonderful program. I am so excited to get started.”

According to the first lady’s office, the dogs have been trained by handlers with a combined 50-plus years of experience.

The program’s first goal is to have 10 dogs placed in schools in 2022. The first therapy dog will be a male Black Labrador Retriever named Coal who will be placed at Welch Elementary in McDowell County.

The governor’s office says three more dogs already set to be placed are a Buckhannon Academy Elementary School in Upshur County will receive a male Golden Labradoodle named Foster at Buckhannon Academy Elementary in Upshur County, a female Yellow Labrador named Jasper at Lewis County High School in Lewis County, and a male Yellow Labrador named Jet at Green Bank Elementary-Middle School in Pocahontas County.

The Justices were joined for the announcement by Executive Assistant to the First Lady Vicki Shannon and Special Assistant to the First Lady Katie Morris, who they say will serve as the state’s “Dog Czar” for the Friends With Paws program.

Friends with Paws (Photo Courtesy: WV Gov. Jim Justice’s Office)