By Melissa Levine
Suffolk County lawmakers last week unanimously approved a proposal by Presiding Officer Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue) to designate April 30 as “Pet Therapy Day” in Suffolk County.
Nationally recognized as a day to celebrate therapy animals through the efforts of Pet Partners — the nation’s leading organization registering therapy animals for animal-assisted interventions — Calarco felt it was important to mark the day on the county level to recognize the local groups working to improve the health and well-being of Suffolk residents through animal-assisted therapy and activities.
Legislators approved his resolution to designate Pet Therapy Day in Suffolk County at their April 20 general meeting.
“Therapy animals and their human companions bring joy and healing to people of all ages in many different settings, including hospitals, nursing homes, schools and funeral parlors,” he said. “Designating April 30 as Pet Therapy Day is our way of saying thank you and recognizing all the good these animals and their handlers do to bring moments of joy to people in need in our community, especially given the difficulties of the last year.”
A furry friend joins a middle school class
Since the onset of the pandemic, Comsewogue School District’s staff and students have endured the same challenge that thousands of schools across the globe are facing recreating normalcy in a time of chaos.
Comsewogue special education teacher and student character liaison Andrew Harris is no stranger to the many benefits that come with therapy dogs.
“Normally we visit Stony Brook Hospital’s adolescent psychiatric unit on a weekly basis,” he said. “The kids get a great deal from our visits.”
Harris has been training dogs for over 20 years, so he has grown incredibly familiar with the contagious charm and health benefits that dogs like his dog, Ramsey — a licensed therapy pooch — can bring to people of all ages.
“It’s funny because the nurses and doctors are always the ones who rush in and cuddle the dog before the kids. After all, they too might be having an especially stressful day,” said Harris.
Once invited into a particular institution, the dog is able to comfort people in hospitals, nursing homes and schools.
After a few months of careful planning, Harris devised a therapy-dog-based proposition for the visits at the district’s schools. It didn’t take long to convince the administration to let Ramsey in.
Ramsey proudly wears his Comsewogue picture ID and therapy dog bandana upon entering John F. Kennedy Middle School.
Harris said he has taken much time to develop this program for school visits.
“We have several progressive and successive lessons each time we come into a class,” Harris sad. “On the first visit, it is more of a meet and greet and demonstration of what the dog is capable of.”
When Harris was tasked with getting his therapy dog certification, he had no idea how elaborate it would be. He went on to describe how certain tasks tested the dog’s ability to remain calm in stressful situations — something Ramsey is great at when demonstrating for students of different abilities.
Harris takes ample time to show the students the difference between a therapy dog (they are for you) and a service dog (they are for the owner). He also demonstrates some typical things a service dog might do by performing tasks like dropping crutches and asking the dog to pick them up and bring them to him.
The dogs are capable of accomplishing many other feats too, like assisting people up staircases when requested, or alerting someone to wake up who has sleep apnea.
“When we visit a class for the second time, I have the students do more of the work, instead of the dog and I doing it all,” Harris said. “The students can start by introducing themselves or reading aloud to the dog. Then on our final visit, we sit the dog in the back of the room and have the students do full speeches or presentations.”
The most important thing for Harris is that the students enjoy and learn during the time they spend with Ramsey.
Melissa Levine is a senior at Comsewogue High School
Additional reporting by Julianne Mosher