Education Matters: Selma Unified testing out dog therapy for students

SELMA, Calif. - There is something about a dog that changes the culture of this high school campus, and it’s not just the students who go crazy when they see Jeter – it’s teachers too.

Jeter is a certified therapy dog for the Selma Unified School District. His owner, mental health clinician, Kristy Rangel said it was always her goal to train Jeter to help others.

“I had mentioned to Dr. Gonzales that Jeter was in the process of becoming a therapy dog, and he was open to the idea. So I completed the training – the certification, and we presented it to the board. But just seeing the impact that a dog can have on a youth – it’s amazing,” Rangel said.

Rangel worked with a young student who was closed off and had a difficult time communicating within her own family environment.

“When I first came to her, I didn’t have all the support that I have now. So she really helped me get closer to my family so I do have somebody to talk to,” said Jasmine – a student.

For the past school year, Jeter has been added as part of the therapy, and it has made a huge difference.

“He does make it easier because he is just there comforting me so it makes me … not think about what I’m going through. So it makes me want to talk about it more because I have the comfort while I’m talking about it,” Jasmine said.

The Selma Unified School District acknowledges that it is taking an innovative approach to addressing its student’s mental health needs and says it’s just another tool in its tool box.

“And so with Jeter, what we wanted to do with our animal assistance program was really strategically see how we could embed him in the school system so that he supplements what we are already doing,” said Steve Gonzalez, director of pupil services.

Jeter is being used at all grade levels.

At Garfield Elementary, he is used to reinforce the district’s schoolwide expectations – get students to display good behavior.

“We are piloting Jeter here at Garfield school, and students can earn time with Jeter so they turn in their incentive tickets, and they purchase what we call a “Jeter buck,” and so students can earn time with him on a Friday or a Monday,” Principal Monica Chapa said.

They play fetch with Jeter; they write letters to Jeter; they read to him.

Yes, Jeter listens.

“I think they feel that unconditional acceptance from him that someone is just going to sit there and listen, comfort them and not ask questions and not judge them,” said Faith Contreras, school psychologist.

Like many kids his age, 6-year-old Angel is having difficulty staying focused and following directions. He watches how Jeter does it.

The use of a therapy dog is not new, but Selma Unified officials say what the district is doing could be considered a new approach for Valley schools.

Superintendent Tanya Fisher said it came about because she and the board were willing to think outside the box.

“We’re not educating the students we educated 50 years ago, so our needs are greater and we have to be innovative in ways to meet those needs,” Fisher said.

School psychologists say kids today face more stressers from school work, to home life to social media bullying. And if Jeter can help them in anyway -- that’s a good thing.

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