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Therapy dog brings joy, stress relief to students at Catholic school

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IMAGE: CNS photo/Bob Kohout, Catholic Voice

By Mike May

OMAHA, Neb. (CNS) — Every Wednesday morning, Bo roams the halls at St. James-Seton School in Omaha.

But he’s not a student ducking class — he’s a golden retriever/Labrador mix eager to offer a friendly greeting to everyone he meets.

As a trained therapy dog, Bo helps students de-stress before and after school, and between classes, by providing unconditional love and comfort as they pet and hug him.

His owner, Suzi Richardson, the school’s director of student services, began bringing her 7-year-old dog to school in October to greet students at the beginning of the day, walk the halls between classes or rest in her office, ready for any students who need some “Bo time.”

One student who especially benefited from Bo’s special brand of love is Sydney Gatzemeyer, a kindergartner being treated for brain cancer.

Currently in remission, Sydney required frequent trips to the school nurse’s office for temperature checks or when not feeling well, which upset her, said her mother, Sarah Gatzemeyer.

“She’s calmer when Bo is there, and she always talks about it when she gets home,” Sarah told the Catholic Voice, newspaper of the Omaha Archdiocese. “She tells me, ‘Bo likes to cuddle with me when I don’t feel good.'”

“I think it’s great for the kids,” Sarah said. “Dogs just have that sense of when someone doesn’t feel good. Sometimes that’s all a child needs is someone to make them comfortable.”

And other students agree.

“Bo is very nice and makes my day, especially if I’m upset or stressed about school or my schoolwork,” sixth-grader Nathan Davis said. “He helps me a lot with my emotions and helps me calm down so I can be ready for school.”

“Bo really motivates us to come to school and to get our work done, because after we get that done, we can go see him,” said seventh-grader Sam Lee.

“I think Bo is extremely beneficial because, not only is he a fun companion to have around, but he’s very beneficial to kids with anxiety issues,” said seventh-grader Ella Daly. “He’s very calming and we love having him around.”

“He’s also really cute, so people really enjoy him,” said seventh-grader Zoe Rauterkus.

For Richardson, sharing Bo’s gentle, friendly nature with students is a way to give back. When her daughter was recovering 10 years ago in a hospital from a brain injury suffered in a snowmobile accident, visits from a therapy dog made a significant difference in her attitude and recovery, Richardson said.

“I said right then, if there’s ever a time I can pay it back, I would do it.”

She also was impressed with how therapy dogs help her grandson, who is on the autism spectrum.

“On mornings when he didn’t think he could handle going to school, he would look forward to seeing the school’s therapy dog, and that would help get him to school,” she said.

Richardson met Bo as a 1-year-old shelter dog that had been abused and needed love.

She trained him and gained certification for him through Paws for Friendship, a volunteer group whose members share their pets with people needing comfort worldwide.

Therapy dogs visit people in hospitals, retirement and nursing homes, schools, hospice facilities, and other places where people need comfort or simply need something to lift their day.

But the pet must have the right temperament, Richardson said. They must enjoy being around people and other animals, be able to respond to commands and not be startled or distracted by loud noises or other disturbances.

“Bo has been a great stress reliever,” Richardson said. “Some kids who’ve had a rough day, they’ll come in to see him and he gets their mind off their problems. They go away with a smile.”

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May is on the staff of the Catholic Voice, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Omaha.

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