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Therapy dogs bring joy, unconditional love to schools

Randolph Elementary School second-grader Oliver with Shug, one of the school's two therapy dogs

Shug is one of two therapy dogs at Randolph Elementary School. Shug is actually short for Sugar Bear - which makes sense, because the three-year old English Cream Golden Retriever is very sweet.

“When I see Shug, he makes my day because he’s a good dog,” said Dre, a third-grader at the school near 37th and D streets. “A lot of dogs are good, but Shug is really good.”

Shug is one of 29 therapy dogs roaming the hallways and classrooms of Lincoln Public Schools, trading their affection and attention for belly rubs and a good scratch behind the ears. Former Mickle Middle School Principal Dick Spearman started the LPS therapy dog program about 20 years ago with his dog Riley.

Shug is the fourth therapy dog that counselor Susie Mahoney has brought to Randolph during her 18 years at the school. Since then, Randolph has gained a reputation as a school that loves therapy dogs, hosting as many as four at a time. Shug is currently joined by Jake, who is computer teacher Bryan Ebeler’s seven-year-old Bullmastiff/Black Lab mix.

As a counselor, Mahoney is keenly aware of the benefits of school therapy dogs. The primary benefit, she said, is what she observes on a daily basis: helping students regulate their emotions.

“When students have high emotions, that’s usually anger and sadness and frustration. Often times they don’t want to listen to adults or listen to logic that adults are trying to use with them. But there isn’t anyone in the school who’s not going to listen to Shug or to Jake. Shug has a way of snuggling up to people and knowing when kids need that unconditional love,” said Mahoney, adding that it’s not uncommon for teachers to borrow Shug to help with one of their students if she’s busy.

John Neal, LPS assistant superintendent for governmental relations and general administration, oversees the school district’s dog therapy program. He cited numerous benefits of therapy dogs: improved school attendance and behavior, reduced student anxiety and a warmer school environment - all of which leads to higher academic achievement. The LPS goal is to someday have every school reap the benefits of a therapy dog.

“Pet therapy dogs come to school every day filled with unconditional love to share with students,” Neal said. “Whether they spend the day listening to a young reader's first attempt at reading aloud, sitting by a desk at the feet of a nervous new student who just transferred into the school mid-semester, or receiving hugs in the hallway from students, pet therapy dogs are there for the kids every day.”  

Mahoney point outs that therapy dogs must go through extensive training through the American Kennel Club before they enter schools, with recertification required biannually. “It’s hard work, not every position or person can do it. But because of the benefit it provides it’s worth the work.”

Dre agrees. His face lights up when he enters a room and sees his buddy Shug.

“He’s just nice. He’s like a person, kind of. He just greets you. Sometimes he greets you and rubs up against you and gives you kisses,” he said. “I like giving him attention. Because the more attention you give the better bond you have. So if you’re ever sad he’ll give you more attention.

“It makes me feel happier.”


Published: December 12, 2018, Updated: December 13, 2018

"He’s just nice. He’s like a person, kind of. He just greets you. Sometimes he greets you and rubs up against you and gives you kisses. I like giving him attention. Because the more attention you give the better bond you have. So if you’re ever sad he’ll give you more attention. It makes me feel happier."

Dre, a third-grader at Randolph Elementary School, talking about Shug, one of the school's therapy dogs