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

ad­dic­tion cen­ters.

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.



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