Everybody knows Maura: Hillsboro school therapy dog attracts attention of U.S. senator
Hoeven made a stop in Hillsboro on Tuesday, Jan. 17, to talk with students and staff about the benefits of having a therapy dog in school and the innovative program that brought her to Hillsboro.
HILLSBORO, N.D. — At Hillsboro High School, everybody knows Maura — staff and students alike stop in the hallways between classes to greet the golden retriever that serves as the school’s therapy dog. This week, she even attracted the attention of a U.S. senator, who visited the school to meet her.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., made a stop in Hillsboro on Tuesday, Jan. 17, to talk with students and staff about the benefits of having a therapy dog in school and the innovative program that brought her to Hillsboro. Hillsboro Public Schools is the first school district in North Dakota to train its own therapy dog.
Maura was introduced to the school in December 2021 as a nine-week-old puppy. Since then, three semesters of students in Levi Reese’s veterinary science class have worked to train her for an animal assisted education certification, which allows her to work with students who have mental health or behavioral needs.
Reese, who teaches agriculture education classes at Hillsboro High School, is the dog’s owner and handler. He said his students saw a need for more mental health support for students at the school and he saw an opportunity for a hands-on learning experience for his students along the way.
His students presented the idea to Superintendent Paula Suda and High School Principal Terry Baesler. After the school board approved the dog, Reese’s classes started training Maura with basic commands.
“Basically, the objectives or the goal when we first started was the things that we needed to do to pass the test,” said Reese.
Now a certified animal assisted education specialist, Maura has moved on to more complex skills. This semester, Reese’s class is training the dog to track certain scents and ride on a skateboard.
Suda said having a dog in the school has benefited Hillsboro High School, and Reese’s handling of the dog has made it easy for the school district.
“He’s taken all of that off of our shoulders — we’re getting the benefit, but didn’t have to do any of the work or the training,” she said.
Past and current students in Reese’s class told Hoeven about the experience of training Maura and the impact she has had on students in the school. Ellie Vice, a student in Reese’s vet science class this semester said having Maura at the school helps students unplug from their phones and other devices.
“In the 21st century, there is a lot of homework that’s on screens, we’re on our phones all the time as teenages, video games,” said Vice. “Dogs take you out of that constant loop of being on computers and things like that. You’re engaging in real life.”
Hoeven said he is seeing an increasing number of therapy dogs in places like airports and schools.
“It used to just be for older people or maybe veterans that had suffered injuries in combat, but now we’re seeing it across a whole spectrum,” said Hoeven. “COVID has brought it to younger people — it seems like this is an area where there is a growing need.”
In the future, said Hoeven, federal grants with flexible spending guidelines could allow other schools to train therapy dogs like Maura.
“It’s important in terms of federal funding we provide that you have local flexibility, so that the local school and the state of North Dakota can determine how best to utilize those dollars,” he said.
To schools considering training a therapy dog, Reese says “do it.”
“But make sure you do it right, because it’s not an easy thing,” he said. “There’s nothing out there that tells us how to do this or what to do.”
So far, there is no curriculum for having students train a school’s therapy dog or guidance for how schools can start the process. Reese is working with NDSU and the Association of Animal-Assisted Intervention Professionals to develop standards for schools that want to train a therapy dog.
A lack of curriculum has not stopped other schools in the region from training therapy dogs of their own. Reese said the Valley-Edinburg School District in Crystal and Midway Public Schools in Inkster recently implemented similar programs.