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Siggi on the Job: The Dog Therapy Program at Spero Academy

by Devin Taylor

Early in the morning, before the sounds of children fill the halls of Spero Academy, you can hear the unmistakable thump of a bouncing tennis ball and the sound of happy paws chasing after it. It’s Siggi! The Spunky Spero Therapy Dog.

Siggi (or Sigbjorn, as he’s formally known) took time out of his busy school schedule for an interview with Spero paraprofessional and para mentor, Gina Bonin. Here are just a few fun facts about Spero’s Dynamic Doggo:

Siggi started working at Spero Academy in April (2021). He heard about the job through his friend Kelly. He loves kids, and loves playing, so he thought it would be a perfect fit. His favorite part of the job is playing fetch in the field with the kids. Siggi helps kids express their emotions, and he helps motivate them to reach their goals. He needed to reach some education goals himself before he could start the job. He attended socialization classes and behavior boot camp. When he is a little older he will attend therapy dog class and take the Good Citizen exam.

When Siggi gets to work in the morning, he likes to hang out with his upstairs co-workers. A rousing game of fetch helps him feel energized and ready for the day. He always makes sure to check in with Ms. Alex and Ms. Miller. If he is able to sneak downstairs, he likes to say hello to Mr. Edi and Ms. Diane. He’s always ready to help out by cleaning up any crumbs left on the floors and by checking to see if there’s anything interesting in the trash cans. He often takes a nap at home after a big day at work. Siggi works at Spero on Mondays and Wednesdays. On the days he isn’t here working, he goes to doggy day care, or Doodle Squad, as he likes to call it.

On the weekends Siggi enjoys playing with his friends from the neighborhood. Hank the Corgi is one of his best friends. He also has a blast playing with Bowie, Coco, Millie, or Punky Brewster. His friends would describe him as affectionate, jazzy, and spunky.

Here’s an interesting fact about Siggi - his given name is Sigbjorn, which means Victory Bear in Swedish.

So, what exactly is a Therapy Dog?

As it turns out, there are three distinct classifications of animals who help humans: Service Dogs, Emotional Support Animals, and Therapy Dogs.

Service Dogs

Service Dogs are recognized by the ADA as dogs trained to provide a specific, medically necessary service to a person with a disability. These services can be physical or psychiatric in nature, but they must be specific to the person served and they must involve a specific response to a need or event. If the dog has been trained to sense an impending anxiety attack in an individual and to take a specific action in response, this dog would qualify as a Service Dog.

Emotional Support Dogs

While they don’t qualify as Service Dogs, Emotional Support animals are still trained to provide support to one person. Unlike a Service Dog, they are not necessarily trained to perform a specific task in response to a need or event. Instead, they provide ongoing emotional support just by being with the person in need. They don’t have the same access rights as Service Dogs, as they are not recognized by the ADA as a medical necessity.

Therapy Dogs

Service and Emotional Support animals may do different things, but they are both trained to perform those functions for one specific person. A Therapy Dog, like Siggi, is trained to work with and provide support to lots of people. Like other Therapy Dogs, Siggi has been brought up to enjoy socializing and to desire attention from humans. It’s a good thing, too, because lots of folks  – staff and students alike – want to spend time with Siggi.

So, what does Siggi’s work at Spero look like?

To learn more about the Therapy Dog Program at Spero Academy, we checked-in with our school psychologist, who works with Siggi during his visits. Here she explains what visits with Siggis typically look like and discusses some of the social and emotional merits of his interactions with students:

During the sessions, I usually just let the students take the lead. I find Siggi's presence alone is helpful in allowing students to let down their guard and be willing to process difficult feelings and situations. In addition, Siggi's presence is often calming to students so they feel safe to discuss their feelings. 

We may simply bring Siggi on a walk. Students often feel empowered with this responsibility, which helps reinforce self-reliance and self-esteem. When students have difficulty calming down, Siggi's presence allows them to work through their issues. Additionally, his presence often allows students to practice being more social, which is difficult for many students at Spero.

But what about the distraction? Students with allergies? Student fears?

According to Siggi’s human, sessions with Siggi are generally conducted one-on-one or in a small group with no more than two students. Students are required to have a “Siggi Pass” before visiting Siggi in his office, and must respect his school schedule. 

Siggi is well trained, good natured, and follows the directions of his handler. Classroom visits are rare, keeping distractions to a minimum while enabling Siggi’s handlers to be mindful of students with allergies as well as the comfort level of both students and staff. Siggi keeps his distance from students who are fearful of dogs and has even helped a student work through this fear – with both student and parent consent, of course.

So why have a Therapy Dog in school?

The benefits of Therapy Dogs are wide ranging and include those that are cognitive, social, emotional, and physical.

Wondering how that works? 

For one thing, playing and interacting with a dog can be a real mood-lifter. These interactions frequently inspire laughter – an action with health benefits all its own, shown to activate and relieve the stress response, soothe tension, and increase oxygen intake. In other words, it’s just a generally good thing for both body and mind.

Additionally, focused interaction with an animal often conjures memories of beloved pets and may even prompt story sharing, thereby promoting bonding and social connection. All of this can provide much needed momentary distraction from problems as well as relief from stress or anxiety. There is even evidence that petting and playing with a dog can lower stress levels and blood pressure. It’s truly a wonder what the mere presence of one little animal can do!

As Spero’s school psychologist attests:

“Siggi's presence generally brings a sense of calm and promotes positivity in the school climate. It’s hard not to smile when you have a cute dog to pet as you pass by in the hallway, even during the most difficult moments.” 

Difficult moments have been plentiful in the last two years, and school is no exception. Through Pandemic stress and the challenges of Distance Learning, students' social and emotional needs are at an all time high. Teachers, school staff, and Leadership are continuously looking for new and innovative ways to promote student well-being, foster a sense of safety at school, and improve the overall school climate. You could say that Spero’s Dog Therapy Program is one furry, four-legged step toward a better school year.