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Therapy dogs help ease return to Franklin Regional High School

| Wednesday, April 23, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Submitted photo
When students and staff returned to Franklin Regional High School after the April 9 knife attack, they were greeted by therapy dogs that helped ease them back into the school schedule.
When students and staff returned to Franklin Regional High School after the April 9 knife attack, they were greeted by therapy dogs that helped ease them back into the school schedule.

When students returned to Franklin Regional High School for the first time last week, several dogs were there to lend a helping paw.

Jan Mayr and Piper, her 11-year old border collie, were among more than 40 registered therapy dogs and 35 handlers who took turns providing a peaceful and comforting presence.

Students were out of class for nearly a week after 20 classmates and a security guard were the victims of an April 9 knife attack at the school.

Mayr, a trainer who has been doing therapy work since the mid-1990s, said the students responded wonderfully and really seemed to enjoy having the dogs there.

“It was a privilege and an honor to be able to bring Piper there to help these kids associate more pleasant things in that particular hallway, which is where we were,” said Mayr, a Hannastown resident who works with the Delmont-based Westmoreland County Obedience Center.

Assistant Superintendent Mary Catherine Reljac said a professional counselor teamed up with each therapy dog and handler, as well as a high school student ambassador. The dogs, ranging in size and breed, worked with students in three- to four-hour shifts on April 15 and 16. The dogs also worked with teachers on April 14.

“Some of the handlers had multiple dogs, and they would bring one in the morning and one in the afternoon,” Reljac said.

Students and staff thought the dogs were so beneficial during a no-classes walk-through of the school on Tuesday that Reljac said their time spent in the school was extended into Wednesday and Thursday, when classes were held.

One school counselor reported that a student shared his fear of returning to the school building but willed himself to come because he specifically wanted to have an experience with the therapy dogs, Reljac said.

“They were extremely helpful,” she said.

Reljac said one of the administrators helped arrange the logistics and got the therapy dogs scheduled.

Mayr said all of the dogs did well — including Piper, who has been a therapy dog for more than eight years. Mayr has four registered therapy dogs. She said she thinks the animals are effective because dogs love unconditionally and just want to spend time with people.

“With people who have PTSD or anything trauma related, the dogs are there, and they don't want anything from you. They just want to be with you.”

Larissa Dudkiewicz is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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