Conowingo Elementary goes to the (therapy) dogs
— Conowingo Elementary School has gone to the dogs. And one big-eared rabbit. And a couple of fish.
It’s all part of an effort by the school over the last year or so to use a variety of animals both to provide therapy to students and to promote learning. The initiative started last year when the school adopted a therapy rabbit the students named Bunnyscotch (a play on butterscotch) and continued this month when the school partnered with PAWS for People
to start a reading program with therapy dogs.
Petey the beta fish, whose tank is in the school secretary’s office, as well as some other fish in individual classrooms, round out the menagerie.
“What’s happened now is that any kind of cute animal, someone takes a picture and sends it to me and says ‘Hey, we should get this for school,’” said Kelly Riser, the school’s principal, with a laugh. “We are definitely an animal-friendly school.”
The school’s pet collection started last year when Riser wanted to get therapy animal for the school. She settled on a bunny because she wanted an animal that students could interact with, and the school adopted what they thought was an American Grey Longeared bunny. But as the bunny got bigger and bigger, a local veterinarian told the school Bunnyscotch was actually a Flemish Giant rabbit, Riser said.
“I wanted something a little more tangible that the kids could hold, really never thinking he was going to get this big,” Riser said with a laugh.
“But he loves the pre-K and kindergartens and what’s nice about having a larger rabbit is that they can kind of pull on his ears and tail and he’s not phased by it at all, so it ended up being nice having him a little larger.”
Bunnyscotch, who lives in Riser’s office, has quickly become a school celebrity among both teachers and students. This year, Conowingo instituted Cub bills, which students can redeem for a chance to feed, play or have lunch with Bunnyscotch, Riser said.
Beyond the fun he brings to the school, Riser said Bunnyscotch serves a real educational purpose, particularly among students with a history of behavior problems. Not only is time with the bunny a good reward for these students, he also acts as a great therapy animal when students are upset.
“One time we had a student Bunnyscotch, a Flemish Giant rabbit, hops around Conowingo Elementary School Principal Kelly Riser’s office.
who escalated,” Riser recalled. “Usually it takes about 45 minutes for this student to regain control. We took the bunny into the room and within five minutes, his head was up, he was talking to us, he was talking to the bunny.”
The school’s animalfriendly reputation soon at-
tracted the attention of Patsy Cress and her German shepherd, who work with PAWS for People. Found in Elkton in 2005, the Newark, Del.-based organization provides therapeutic visits with dogs, cats and rabbits in places such as schools, hospitals, nursing homes and
The organization also operates a popular PAWS for Reading program, which allows students to read aloud to a therapy dog or cat to improve reading and communication skills.
The Conowingo version of the program started with just Cress but after a visit to the school, the organization recruited two more teams so the school could have a more expansive program.
The three teams come to the school for about an hour on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for individual reading sessions with students who are apprehensive about reading, Riser said. Fifteen students in grades one through three were chosen for the program, and each student will stay with the same therapy team through the school year, she added.
Participating students also get a stuffed dog and some books so they can practice reading at home, Riser noted.
Stephanie Barry, associate director with PAWS, who worked with Riser to set up the Conowingo program said she’s very pleased with how it’s going so far. PAWS has had a similar program at Kenmore Elementary School for several years and previously had a program at Bay View Elementary School. The organization also has a program at the Elkton library that will start up again in January, she added.
“The reading program is a fantastic way to help struggling and reluctant readers become more comfortable,” Barry said. “It’s probably our most popular program.”
PAWS would love to expand into more Cecil County schools but, at the same time, would also like to expand its volunteer base in the county, she noted.
But while the program is only two weeks old at Conowingo, Riser said the school is already seeing results.
“It’s building their confidence in terms of reading,” she said. “(The therapy team) isn’t there to teach them how to read. They’re just there to build that love of reading and that’s what we’re seeing — they’re practicing more in class because they want to get ready to read to the dog. So it’s been really beneficial.”
Joanna Keane and her therapy dog Daisy read with Jace Nesbitt, a first grader at Conowingo Elementary School, as part of the PAWS for Reading program.