C.R. elementary adds therapy dog to staff

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Clayton Ridge therapy dog "River" enjoys connecting with students and creating smiles while helping them develop a positive attitude toward learning. From left are, Trapper Knapp, Mallory Greve, Garrett Opperman, and Patricia Rodenberg; center, enjoying all the attention, is "River." (Photo submitted)

By Caroline Rosacker

The Clayton Ridge School District is pleased to announce their newest staff member, a licensed therapy dog named "River."

The mini-golden doodle was born on April 18, 2021, to Field of Dreamz Doodles and Poodles breeders in Dyersville.Stephanie Thomas, Clayton Ridge Elementary School Counselor, adopted the eight-week-old puppy and "River" has been living with Stephanie and her husband, Jon, and three daughters, Madilyn, Natalie, and Audrey at their home in Millville since June 2021. 

"I named her 'River' because a portion of our school district is positioned on the shores of the Mississippi River, and she will offer peace like a river," Thomas shared.  

Stephanie has been employed with Clayton Ridge as a school counselor since 2003. She and other staff members were inspired to introduce a therapy dog to Clayton Ridge Students after attending a Keystone AEA Conference in 2019, where a member of the Oelwein School District presented a therapy dog program. "I am always looking for ways to enhance our counseling program," she explained. "There have been many changes since I started building a comprehensive and sequential counseling program at Clayton Ridge." 

When educators returned to face-to-face learning, following school closures brought on by a worldwide pandemic, schools across Iowa recognized a need to support social emotional learning. 

Thomas, and then Principal/Superintendent Shane Wahls decided to move forward with the therapy dog project. "In November 2020, we (the Clayton Ridge Counseling Team) met with the school board to have an initial conversation. By December I began working on a policy, which I finished in May. In July Mr. Wahls and I reviewed the policy changes suggested by an insurance representative and lawyer," she commented.

On Sept. 9, 2021, River, who was just a young pup, met with school board members and the school board officially adopted the Therapy Dog Policy.  "Once the policy was approved Thomas began researching other programs in the area to find the best plan of action for Clayton Ridge students. "River and I went through an organization called Pet Partners. I completed an online handler course and therapy dog evaluation," she told The Press. "We practiced coming into school and developing social skills with a variety of individuals to make sure she wouldn't become frightened in certain situations. For instance, she was introduced to a person with a beard, a woman wearing a hat, someone in a wheelchair etc." 

On "River's" first day of school Thomas escorted "River" around the building and met all the students in their classrooms. "Typically she will meet with the students that come to see me in my office," she noted. "She will also accompany me in the classroom on the days I teach classroom guidance, which instructs students on different character traits, such as bucket filling, respect for themselves and one another, kindness, trustworthiness, honesty, career exploration and making healthy choices."

"River" remains on a leash during the school day. Thus far, the students who have interacted with her have had a positive experience. Like all other employees at Clayton Ridge, "River" is held to a high set of standards. Her goals include: 

• Will increase empathy and support social emotional learning 

• Help students develop a positive attitude toward learning

• Reduce stress by providing a sense of connection 

• Create a positive environment at Clayton Ridge Elementary

• Promote academic growth and literary interest 

Parents and students have an opportunity to opt out of contact with the therapy dog if they wish, but Thomas assures the mini-golden doodle's soft curly fur is very hypoallergenic and kid friendly. "One of our students asked, 'Why do we have a therapy dog?' I replied, 'Her job is to create smiles and make connections.' He said, "I already feel connected to her.'"

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