When Suzanne Reinhart’s first school therapy dog, Magic, died unexpectedly in June 2012, she thought she would never want another one. That lasted about six hours. Seven months later, Reinhart was paired with Kennedy. Together they are an inseparable team, providing comfort and companionship to elementary schoolchildren in Tiffin.
This fall will mark 10 years that the Tiffin City Schools have had a therapy dog. Magic was only the second therapy dog to be placed in an Ohio school district. Reinhart, MAE ’98, the school counselor for 800 second- through fifth-graders in Noble and Krout elementary schools, will be leading the anniversary celebration. Six-year-old Kennedy, the charming and affectionate Golden Retriever, will be the center of attention. After all, he is a local celebrity.
“This is a life I love,” said Reinhart, who is also an adjunct instructor in Heidelberg’s graduate counseling program. “It’s just fantastic.”
Reinhart alternates between the two schools, arriving each morning with Kennedy by her side, his tail wagging and body wiggling, happily greeting the kids. He’s most comfortable hanging out in the hallway outside her office, where he willingly accepts frequent petting, chin scratches and belly rubs.
“It’s a rough life, laying there being body massaged by 100 kids a day, taking naps and getting treats,” Reinhart said.
Golden Retrievers have the perfect temperament to make children feel at ease. The ability to stroke a calm, patient dog can be the key that opens the door to communication.
Children are Kennedy’s magnet. “His repertoire is absolutely amazing,” said Reinhart. “Sometimes he just sits beside a child. Sometimes, he lays his head on a foot or licks a face or hands. It’s all what he feels is right. It’s amazing how well he reads people, especially kids.”
Indeed, Kennedy’s intuition is on target. Skilled in obedience with mastery of about 30 commands, he spent a year in training with inmates at the Toledo Correctional Institute. One such command is to maintain eye contact; Kennedy can look into a person’s eyes for a full two minutes. This is a valuable tool when Reinhart is counseling autistic children who have difficulty with eye contact.
A great listener, he’s particularly effective helping children who are lonely, depressed or grieving. Reinhart related this priceless story:
“I was working with a child who was missing her mom in a big way. Kennedy started licking her and she started giggling. Pretty soon, I see two feet on her lap and before long, there goes the third foot and the fourth foot and then, I can’t see the girl at all. For a few minutes in time, that child was able to let go of all of the stuff going on in her life and just laugh.”
With their friendly, even goofy personalities and strong desire to please, Golden Retrievers are ideal as therapy and assistance dogs. They are known to be masters of working a room, too. Reinhart found this out first hand when she was attending an All-Ohio Counselor Conference years ago. She had been wondering how she could incorporate animals into her school counseling, so she attended a session about therapy dogs in schools. Seated in the first row, she spent most of the session loving on a Golden Retriever who had befriended her.
Returning home, she proposed the school therapy dog idea to district administrators. After a whirlwind of activity, she got approval from Assistance Dogs for Achieving Independence and was placed on their wait list; the wait is typically 18 months to two years. But circumstances fell into place, and about two months later, she was paired with her first therapy dog.
Ironically, it was the very dog she had met at the conference. Fate? Perhaps. Magic? Definitely!
Magic and Kennedy make instant connections with the children, so much so that Reinhart essentially becomes invisible. “I discovered that when I’m with the dog, no one can see me. It’s all about the dog, and that’s really the way it should be,” she said.
Kennedy is known for doing “walk-throughs” in classrooms, and teachers love it. As he strolls up and down the rows, the children are allowed to stop what they’re doing and pet him. “Then, they take a deep breath and go back to work,” Reinhart explained. “A lot of teachers tell me that after the walk-through, class is more settled. That’s a win.”
The outgoing Kennedy also provides some excellent teachable moments. At the beginning of each school year, Reinhart trains the children about appropriate ways to treat the dog and how to interact with him.
Kennedy is calm most of the time, working off the energy of the room. But he sometimes has issues with barking and excitability when he sees kids playing in the gym. On those occasions, Kennedy has had to take a time-out, only to return five minutes later. “The kids can really relate to that,” she said.
The children also learned how to deal with death when the district lost Magic. About 400 people came to a celebration of his life so that they could say good-bye, have closure and heal from the loss. That was a heart-warming moment that demonstrated the impact therapy dogs can have on a community.
Research also indicates that pet therapy – in addition to making people happier – can provide medical benefits like lowering blood pressure and reducing stress levels.
Reinhart is convinced there’s no better working partner or companion. “Kennedy just wants to make people feel better, and when he does, it’s Golden.”