Whether stopping by for a visit on Student Appreciation Day or helping students cope with the death of a classmate, therapy dogs have a local contingent who say they can play a role in supporting students.
One local nonprofit has received a “dramatic increase” in requests over the past year for therapy dog services across Montgomery County Public Schools. This summer, the school board has been asked to ease the way for more dogs to visit more MCPS campuses.
The district currently doesn’t have a formalized policy addressing whether such services are permitted on school grounds, leaving the decision up to principals’ discretion.
“Since the pandemic, we’ve found the number of requests for visits to schools has increased disproportionately,” said Fidos for Freedom program director Frances Glavan, a Rockville resident. Coming back to in-person learning after the COVID-19 virtual learning period, she said she’s noticed children and adults dealing with more anxiety and added that “the therapy dogs seem to help relieve it.”
Prior to the pandemic, the nonprofit sent teams of therapy dogs and their handlers for regular visits at three to four Montgomery County Public Schools campuses, Glavan said. The organization is headquartered in Laurel, a Prince George’s County city that lies just outside Montgomery County. Over the 2022-2023 school year, she said that number has tripled—something she partially attributes to the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the Board of Education’s most recent meeting on July 20, school psychologist Harriet Kuhn asked the board to issue a resolution granting therapy dogs unilateral access to school spaces. She also requested the board enact policies providing guidance on the use of these dogs and their handler teams.
“It’s hard to find any program that matches having a kind and compassionate, trained dog in a school being there to assist children,” she testified.
While experts have not established a clear measure of therapy dogs’ impact on students, some studies suggest a positive correlation with reduced stress and anxiety levels as well as better reading comprehension. Other peer-reviewed studies imply the need for a “whole-school approach” including clear guidelines and protocols for such programs to be successfully integrated in schools.
In 2020, Wheaton-based Sen. Ben Kramer (D-Dist. 19 of Montgomery County) drafted state legislation that would have allowed therapy dogs access to schools across the state, but the bill stalled in committee during the COVID-19 pandemic.
MCPS does not currently offer any formalized school-based programs that incorporate therapy dogs, according to MCPS spokesperson Chris Cram. He added that the School System Medical Officer’s staff is considering establishing a relationship with a local therapy dog group to expand these resources in schools.
School board member Brenda Wolff (Dist. 5) said Kuhn’s request has been forwarded to the board’s policy committee but said she “can’t guarantee this will be considered.”
Kuhn has been a school psychologist for over 32 years, the last eight spent in MCPS. She currently splits time serving Rockville’s Twinbrook Elementary and Silver Spring International Middle School (SSIMS), where she often invites therapy dogs for visits. Kuhn said she’s always been passionate about helping students fulfill their potential and sees therapy dogs as a “tested and true way” to help.
“The proof is in the research,” she said. “Studies show that therapy animals boost student achievement, increase their confidence and lower symptoms of anxiety and depression. I’ve watched it happen. It’s really, really magical.”
Kuhn emphasized that therapy dogs are more than “cute little fluffy things”—she described them as vetted, well-trained professionals who pass a plethora of tests to serve children. Kuhn’s dog, a lab named Kozy Girl, served students with her for 14 years before she died in September 2022.
Glavan said Fidos for Freedom sent therapy dog teams on monthly visits over the 2022-2023 school year to 10 MCPS campuses—ranging from elementary to high schools. An average visit consists of four to eight dog-and-handler teams and usually takes place in a central location over lunch break, preferably outdoors, Glavan said.
“The students love petting the dogs, watching them perform tricks and asking questions,” she said, adding that the dogs are also available to school faculty and staff for stress reduction.
If the school district were to enact a policy permitting the dogs’ services to take place on school grounds, Glavan said Fidos for Freedom would love to increase its presence on campuses “as much as we possibly can.”
At Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, acting assistant principal Rahman Culver said therapy dogs have visited several times over the past school year—including Student Appreciation Day and several mental health awareness events.
Culver said the dogs are always well-received by students and have a positive impact on their socioemotional literacy. Culver added that he would “absolutely be supportive” of new policies aimed at expanding therapy dog services in schools.
“We’ve been able to observe the very tangible benefits for students who find the dogs to be a helpful outlet,” he said. “A lot of priorities in the county are trying to educate youth when it comes to socioemotional health. I think therapy dogs are a nice tool to further some of those goals.”
District-wide, the only regulated use of therapy dogs in school is on special request following a school emergency, according to Cram. He wrote that MCPS has a “working understanding” with a Washington, D.C.-based group called People Animals Love (PAL) to provide these services. Kuhn said she remembers several times where therapy dogs were used to help students cope with the death of a classmate or staff member.
Kuhn told MoCo360 she hopes that if the school board formalizes therapy dogs’ access to MCPS, students would be able to avail themselves of those services on a regular basis. Having worked in schools with Kozy Girl for so many years, Kuhn said she’s seen firsthand how much the dogs enjoy helping students.
“If you’re working in a school, you love your students,” she said. “I honestly believe these dogs feel the same way—when they’re working in schools, they know they’re making a difference.”