Gracie is a sweet-tempered Golden Labrador Retriever mix who lives and works with Apache Junction High School special education teacher Pam Swart. The therapy dog is on the job five days per week in Swart’s life-skills classroom for pupils with autism and intellectual disabilities.
Her duties include calming and motivating 18 kids who find school incredibly challenging.
“She’s cool,” said student Cassie Edwards, 15. “I give her hugs.”
Because some students with autism are unable to speak, petting Gracie or taking her for a walk within the school campus helps ease their frustrations. Swart said students also learn responsibility when they walk Gracie or fill her water bowl.
“They love her,” Swart said. “One boy completely changed his behavior when Gracie arrived.”
At Marcos de Niza High in the Tempe Union district, an English yellow Labrador Retriever service dog named Quilter, attends student Eli Goldstick’s classes with him.
Her assignment is to help Eli keep his balance, to retrieve dropped pencils and notebooks, and do other tasks.
At home, Quilter turns light switches on and off, opens and closes doors and drawers, and pulls off Eli’s socks.
No local group tracks the precise number of dogs like Gracie and Quilter in metro Phoenix, or how many assist in schools. But an inspection by Valley school officials shows that no less than 11 districts or charter schools have therapy or service dogs working on some of their campuses this year.
Nationally, so many therapy-dog owners are interested in certification from the American Kennel Club that the organization in July began offering four levels of “therapy dog” certification, from “novice” to “distinguished.” More than 900 dogs have received certification this year.
And Assistance Dogs International, in Santa Rosa, Calif, reports that nearly 7,000 of its 16,200 members own or handle service dogs.
The American Kennel Club points out in its therapy-dog certification applications that therapy dogs are not the same as service dogs. Therapy dogs comfort people in hospitals, care homes and schools.
They usually have less training than service dogs, who help people who have disabilities.
Dogs that show up at schools have a diverse range of training.
Swart’s Gracie has just finished an American Kennel Club puppy class and is working on the “good canine citizenship certificate.” Swart intends for Gracie to earn the club’s therapydog certification.
In comparison, Bandit, a 2-year-old German Shepherd, went though more than 3,000 hours of training to be a seizure-detection dog. He is attending classes with a Queen Creek Unified School District student this year.
While the American Disabilities Act prohibits businesses from discriminating against service dogs, it does not require that establishments admit therapy dogs. The American Kennel Club also forbids therapy dog owners from misrepresenting their dogs as service animals.
The Arizona Department of Education doesn’t regulate assistance dogs in schools.
“The use of therapy or service animals in a classroom or by students is a local school-district issue,” department spokeswoman Sally Stewart said.
Superintendent Chad Wilson approved Gracie’s entry to Apache Junction High School last spring. Swart said a part of the process included verifying with parents to make sure no students were allergic to dogs.
Swart said she has wanted to bring a therapy dog to her special-education class for the past five years but has had trouble finding the right dog.
Swart is an experienced dog owner and handler. Her husband, Ron Swart, is a K-9 handler for the Mesa Police Department.
They live with Ron’s doggy partner, Lotus, a Dutch shepherd who specializes in drug detection and building searches, and Maggie, a chocolate Lab Pam deemed “too hyper” to train to bring to school.
“We are dog lovers,” she said.
When Gracie’s previous owner, a busy high-school student, offered the gentle Labrador mix to the Swarts, Pam knew she had a therapy dog.
“When I saw how calm her temperament was, I knew she was the one for the job,” she said.