February 14, 2024

Therapy Dogs Join U.S. School in Ministering to Students

“Pets have a calming effect,” Georgia-Cumberland Academy principal says.

Kalie Kelch, for Southern Tidings
Anani Cross (left), Jacob Henry, and Ella Anderson enjoy a few moments with Koda and Georgia, Georgia-Cumberland Academy’s new therapy dogs. [Photo: Georgia-Cumberland Academy]

Georgia-Cumberland Academy (GCA), a Seventh-day Adventist boarding school in Calhoun, Georgia, United States, is getting creative in its ongoing commitment to minister to students and to provide them with a whole-person education that prepares them academically and meets their mental, spiritual, and physical needs. The school has adopted two Australian Bernedoodle therapy dogs to address the mental health needs of its student body.

Ministry comes in a variety of forms, but at the heart of it is the desire to meet the needs of another person. “GCA started looking into this option because pets have a calming effect on people during counseling sessions or just with students experiencing anxiety, homesickness, or other stressful situations,” GCA principal Serge Gariepy said. “The therapy dog program is a resource to help our counselors, chaplains, deans, and faculty meet the emotional and mental health needs of our students.”

Thanks to the generosity of GCA alumna Cathy Becker Prather, class of 1987, the school adopted the puppies and plans to send them through a training regimen that will ultimately result in them receiving the Canine Good Citizen certification offered by the American Kennel Club. GCA staff members Chris Harris, responsible for counseling, guidance, and testing, and Susan Jenkins, business manager, will also undergo special certification training as the dogs’ handlers.

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Georgia-Cumberland Academy student Brianne Spellen stops to spend a few moments between classes with Koda, an Australian Bernedoodle therapy dog. [Photo: Georgia-Cumberland Academy]

“Research highlights dogs’ ability to uplift mood and well-being, enriching the school experience,” Prather, a family nurse practitioner in Calhoun and owner of Happy Top Doodles, said. “As a parent of two autistic children who have greatly benefited from dogs, I’m thrilled to help bring this support to GCA.”

Since pets have been shown to lower anxiety in their owners, GCA is excited to welcome the two puppies — named Georgia and Koda — to the school family, school leaders said. The therapy dogs are another facet in GCA’s growing student services, with the goal of helping students to develop positive coping skills and thrive in high school and beyond.

With more and more students struggling with depression, anxiety, stress, and loneliness, the school has already expanded its counseling services, and the dogs are one more step in ministering to its students. Shelby Miller is a junior at GCA and one of the many students who enjoy taking a break during the day to pet the puppies.

“I absolutely love both Georgia and Koda! I’ve gotten to interact with both, and I can say they are so helpful when you’re stressed or upset. I definitely think they bring needed support to us as students. They are obviously adorable and just what the school needed!” Miller said.

Among the many benefits of therapy dogs, “they are non-judgmental, they are excellent listeners, they love unconditionally, they never break confidentiality, and so much more,” Harris said. “Our program intends to bring these animals into the family of GCA, where they will be a part of daily life on campus and can be used in crisis situations and in everyday activities. Once fully trained, we expect the dogs to spend most of their days on campus, at events, in classrooms, and [in] counseling sessions.”

The original version of this story was posted by Southern Tidings.