Therapy-dog program considered for Central High


Photo Courtesy of Pioneer Library System

Therapy dog brought in to provide comfort to elementary children learning to read.

Sofia Sanchez, Staff Writer

Therapy dog programs have gotten an exploratory start at various Central Valley schools and are now in the preliminary stages of being considered for Central High. Some semblance of dog therapy has been implemented in various school districts in the Valley to reduce anxiety levels or provide behavioral incentives among students.

According to some Clovis, Sanger and Selma schools, the use of therapy dogs has benefited their students during anecdotal trials over the last several years and may be gradually expanded. As a result, Central High School teachers, nurses, and psychologists are beginning to show an interest in the idea of implementing trained dogs into the daily school-life of students.  Central site administration is currently examining therapy dog program benefits for Central after the idea was introduced in a recent administrative meeting.

Mr. William Balmanno, an advanced placement U.S. history, and psychology teacher was one of the first teachers to suggest the idea to the Central High School nursing and psychology staff. He explained that though he has highly motivated students, they are still at risk for stress due to increased workload and testing pressure. Balmanno stated, “Because I teach advanced subjects and psychology, I see a different group of students than most teachers, and the top-of-the-list issues that I face are anxiety and depression among the students. I have seen students, on multiple occasions, completely stop a test and I end up sending them to counseling because the anxiety that the test presents is so deep for the student.”

Due to these experiences, Balmanno began researching innovative ways to reduce student anxiety and he discovered a seemingly ironic answer. “I found that the best way to help students take the test is to find a way to distract them. One of the great things about having a service dog during these high stakes tests is to allow students to kind of disassociate from the anxiety, from the test that’s coming, and allow them to focus on a little to help for a few minutes. I fear that, in some way, we may be breaking some of our best students because they have anxiety attacks and they quit AP altogether. I feel like we’re doing a great disservice to those students.”

Though therapy animals are clearly not the sole solution for stressed-out students, Balmanno believes they can provide significant relief for some. He says, “Through ideas like meditation and positive reinforcement, combined with service dogs, I think we can provide a much more positive experience for our students.”  

This year, a member of a respected therapy dog organization, Therapy Dogs International, reached out to Central High in hopes of fulfilling those student needs. Retired Hoover teacher and TDI volunteer Skip Crew offered to make his therapy dog the first to assist students in our district. Mr. Crew explained that TDI volunteer handlers and animals are highly trained, insured and ready to work with everyone from seniors to children. Though most of Mr. Crew’s work has been with older seniors in assisted living facilities, as a past teacher, his goal is to extend his service in ways that will benefit students. “I’ve been looking for a school to work with,” said Crew.

Schools who have begun participating in these programs have typically done so through a voluntary, student application process with parent permission to ensure any exposure to therapy dogs is desired by the student and approved by parents. The effort has been primarily been made due to mounting research which suggests therapy animals can significantly reduce stress, increase learning and improve behavioral outcomes for students. This may be part of Central High’s strategy to support students in the future.