By TOM HINDLE
COLLEGE PARK, Md. — A bill in the Maryland state legislature would require public schools to allow the use of therapy dogs across the state.
There’s currently no Maryland-wide policy for these dogs.
Under the law — filed in the House as HB713, and in the senate as SB419 — certified canines would be permitted entry to offer emotional and scholastic support for students.
How exactly that should happen would be left up to each county board of education.
Sponsor Sen. Ben Kramer, D-Montgomery, told Capital News Service that having a dog nearby would be an ideal way for students to power down and relax in learning environments — and that the animals’ unconditional love is invaluable for children.
Schools would not be charged with providing the dogs — rather, the bill simply would allow the animals to enter schools with a trained handler.
School social workers from Montgomery County brought this legislation to Del. Michelle Guyton, D-Baltimore County, before last year’s session.
They said they had immense success with therapy dogs, but the lack of county or statewide guidance was an obstacle.
A dog lover whose sons had made use of canine therapy, Guyton was immediately interested.
“We really, really believe in this program,” Guyton said.
Therapy dogs can serve a number of purposes.
The canines can be used for emotional support, or, on some occasions, to help nervous students in the classroom, Guyton said.
The SPCA of Maryland’s Wagging Tales program works with grades 1-3, and has 15 therapy teams.
After being in the classroom with the organization, Community Relations Director Katie Flory saw that uncomfortable readers became far more relaxed — and that their performance improved.
“When you’re reading to a pet, there’s no judgment there,” Flory said.
While dogs don’t serve as a panacea, Flory said, they can help teachers and students alike — assisting with learning as well as fostering a comfortable environment.
“This is a missing resource right now that I feel like could be really beneficial,” Flory said.
A common misconception is that dogs will be around throughout the day, Flory said, but that’s not usually the case.
Wagging Tales has found that targeting certain subjects — English, for example — or even going into a class at the right times, can maximize learning potential.
Ultimately, schools will be charged with providing detailed policies for how and where the dogs can be used.
Specifically, the bill encourages boards of education to consider guidelines for dog handlers, as well as offer detailed communication with parents and students.
The proper definition of a therapy dog is complicated; they’re not emotional support dogs, or Americans with Disabilities Act service dogs, per Disability Rights Maryland.
Service dogs are typically trained to cater to handlers’ disabilities, like offering support to blind people.
Therapy dogs serve an entirely different purpose, often providing psychological or physiological support to individuals other than their handlers, according to the Alliance of Therapy dogs.
These dogs, then, have to be more mild-mannered, and enamored with human interaction — preferring tummy rubs to strict discipline, Flory said.
Guyton drew inspiration and support from an expansive program in New York City, which saw positive results after having dogs in 55 public schools.
Their movement started six years ago, and as many as 300 schools in New York have shown interest; some of their members will give testimony during the bill’s hearing next week.
A similar bill did not pass last year, when the General Assembly ended early, in Mid-March.
At the time, detractors raised numerous concerns about the legality of dogs in the classroom.
The Maryland Association of Boards of Education, for example, argued the law would “unreasonably mandate” dog usage in a way that is inconsistent with federal and state codes.
Maryland state law allows service dogs to accompany individual students in schools under the criteria provided by the Individuals with Disabilities and Education Act.
Under the current law, how and how frequently students use the dogs in schools is decided on a case-by-case basis — with no standardized usage policy.
And, crucially, therapy dogs are not defined as ADA service animals, meaning schools have no standardized criteria to permit them.
Guyton believes that this year’s bill is more specific, and eases those concerns for county boards of education.
“I feel like those issues have been mostly addressed,” Guyton said.
Committee members will hear those concerns — as well as support — next week in bill hearings on Wednesday and Thursday.
Some school systems have already explored the possibility of having therapy dogs.
Baltimore County has developed a successful partnership with Wagging Tales, and some schools in Montgomery County have also utilized canines for comfort.
A similar bill is also in the works in Utah’s state legislature.
“Dogs really just want to give love and get love,” Kramer said.