KANAWHA COUNTY, WV (WOWK) – Back-to-school-season can bring a whirlwind of emotions for many students, but therapy dogs are bringing an extra sense of comfort for many as they roll into the new school year.

Twelve therapy dogs across the state are impacting over 5,000 students as they start the new school year. These dogs are part of the “Friends With Paws” program, which brings certified therapy dogs into schools to help students’ learning.

“You would think these dogs are primarily for elementary schools or middle schools, but the high school students, they have their way with every age group,” West Virginia First Lady Cathy Justice said.

Justice started the “Friends with Paws” program in 2022, and she said the comfort of her own dog made her see the need for therapy dogs in schools. 

“Babydog surely is the inspiration for this,” First Lady Justice said.  

Whether it’s responding to trauma or just being a helping paw, therapy dogs make a big difference across West Virginia schools.

Kanawha County is no exception to this, and one therapy dog named Louie is helping increase attendance while making kids feel more comfortable in the classroom. The one-year-old Yellow Labrador is making a difference at South Charleston’s Bridgeview Elementary School.

“He’s been amazing. The laughter and the smiles. The difference that he made immediately,” Bridgeview Elementary School Principal Stephenie Haynes said. “They know Louie as their dog.”

Haynes is Louie’s primary handler, and she said Louie impacts over 400 kids each day.

“I love playing with him. He is very kind and playful,” student Anthony Sanders said. “He’s always there for you.”

Sanders said his favorite memories with Louie is petting him, and he said Louie makes him feel “amazing” when he’s at school.

Therapy dogs like Louie don’t just brighten the hallways and greet students when they arrive to school, they provide emotional support for kids when they need a trusted companion.

“Kids are sharing very personal and sometimes traumatic events, and it helps having him in there to calm those fears that they are having,” Haynes said.

All therapy dogs in West Virginia schools have to go through national therapy dog training and become re-certified each year, that way they can support others while working in all types of environments.