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Student advocates for therapy dog to bring comfort to Madison High School

A therapy dog and his handler at Kilmer Middle School (via FCPS)

From state exams to college-prep tests, James Madison High School 11th-grader Aidan Jones knows how stressful it can be as a student.

With the pandemic adding to concerns about students’ mental health, Jones is working to turn therapy dog visits into a regular occurrence and possibly have one pet make its second home in Madison’s counseling office.

“My goal is to try to get a therapy dog as an extension to the counseling staff,” Jones said, noting that ideally, a teacher would take care of the dog and bring it to school during the day.

Jones developed the idea of a permanent therapy dog program while taking an interdisciplinary course last year, where one assignment had students come up with plans to improve people’s circumstances.

Students shared their ideas in “Shark Tank“-like online presentations, and 1970 Madison graduate Ted Dintersmith, a filmmaker and author who advocates for education reform, agreed to fund some projects, including Jones’s, according to Madison High School Principal Greg Hood.

In the cross-curricular program, Jones met and spoke with Melanie Meren, who represents the Hunter Mill District on the Fairfax County School Board. He says working with her allowed the idea to morph into an actual thing.

Meren said in a statement that she’d like to see therapy dogs serving in more schools.

“This is something close to my heart — as a dog owner, I’ve experienced the calm and reassurance that a trained dog can bring to humans with its unconditional love,” she told Tysons Reporter by email. “As a parent, I’ve seen how dogs trained for reading therapy support can encourage reluctant readers to read aloud to gain confidence in their abilities.”

Research has shown that even petting a dog can help relax people, one of numerous mental health benefits.

“Therapy dogs are nonjudgmental, and that really lowers the anxiety,” Jones said.

Therapy dogs aren’t entirely new to Fairfax County Public Schools. Several schools, including Madison and Aldrin Elementary School in Reston, have partnered with nonprofits to organize visits.

However, Jones says he would like Madison to have a dog as part of its counseling staff, or at least make the outreach more regular. He noticed that having a therapy dog at the school made a difference not just for students, but also for teachers.

Jones has been working with school leaders to move the project forward. He suggested that the school target particularly stressful periods for a group to bring in a trained dog to help students.

“I think this would be really beneficial to just help…the Fairfax County Public School system in general, starting with Madison High School,” he said.

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