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Therapy Dog Improves Learning and Behavior 

 Raniya Baker reads a book while therapy dog Sophie sits in her lap.

September 13, 2023 - “When she sees me, she smiles and gives me a lot of kisses, and it tickles.”

For Kierice Irbing, sixth-grader at Ackerman School, that’s a greeting from a four-legged friend that never gets old. 

“I feel very very happy when I see Sophie,” he says. 

Sophie is a therapy dog who has been coming to Ackerman since she was only eight months old. Her owner is Amy Keith, reading specialist. Keith brings Sophie to school everyday to help students develop empathy, become more confident, and trusting. 

“She is my secret weapon,” said Keith. “Because her affections are authentic and unconditional, she has the ability to completely reverse the mood in the room. Studies have even shown that therapy dogs can help students improve reading scores, enhance their executive functioning skills, and improve their memory.”

Around seven years ago, Keith came up with the idea to have a therapy dog after following the recommendations of a psychologist. 

“I was reading some specific suggestions they had written to help calm one of my students and she mentioned how patting or brushing a therapy dog could be beneficial,” said Keith. “From that moment on, I was on a mission to find a suitable puppy that I could train to become a therapy dog to support all of my students.”

After Sophie passed basic and intermediate dog behavior classes, temperament screening, American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen and community test, and 10 supervised community visits, Keith achieved her mission and Sohie has been coming to Ackerman ever since. 

“My favorite thing about having Sophie is seeing a student who was reluctant to come to class get a few slobbery puppy kisses from Sophie and then see that student soften, smile, laugh, and be willing to give learning a try,” said Keith. 

Students like Raniya Baker favor her joyous company. 

“I play with Sophie and give her treats,” said Baker, sixth-grader. “We play catch outside with the ball and she is so fast. She makes me happy and keeps my day going.”

“She doesn’t bite you when you pet her and she’s always sitting by us,” said Jeremiah Nelson, third-grader. “She makes me so excited.” 

Sophie can also accompany students when they read or take tests. Keith says Sophie is just as delighted as the students when they can spend time together. It’s confirmed by her wagging tail and high-pitched squeals.

“I often tell my students how happy Sophie is that they came to reading class. I emphasize how much Sophie loves them. Sometimes they tell Sophie they love her right back,” said Keith. 

Sophie was trained by Got Your Six, which is a non-profit organization that trains therapy dogs to volunteer in the community and service dogs for specialized work with veterans struggling with PTSD. Keith would like to thank them and the Ackerman administration for allowing Sophie to make a positive impact on the school community.