“Calming Factor”: How a Therapy Dog Brightens the Day at a Prince William Co. Elementary School

Cooper, a year-old Portuguese water dog, is nearing the halfway point of his freshman year in high school, where his role as a daytime therapy dog ​​has been helping both students and staff.

Cooper, a year-old Portuguese Water Dog. (Courtesy Prince William County Public Schools)

Twice a week, the students at Minnieville Elementary in Dale City, Virginia, have a hard time concentrating while Cooper roams the hall.

Whether he’s with Sarah Basler, a counselor at Prince William County School, or in a classroom, he gets all the attention.

Cooper, a year-old Portuguese Water Dog, is nearing the halfway point of his freshman year in high school, where his role as a daytime therapy dog ​​has helped students and staff alike.

Principal Deborah Ellis said the idea wasn’t new, as she often saw social media posts of therapy dogs visiting Enterprise Elementary. However, when Basler approached Ellis about the possibility of bringing a puppy to school, Ellis didn’t hesitate.

“It doesn’t even say ‘Hello Ms. Basler’ anymore,” said Basler. “It’s ‘Where’s Cooper?’ It was an adventure.”

The concept was not new for the school either. Basler said therapy dogs had dropped by the school before, and when they did, the teachers were “thrilled” and “the kids, you just saw their eyes light up.”

So Basler reached out to Ellis to ask if she would allow a therapy dog ​​if Basler became the puppy’s owner and assumed responsibility for transporting the dog to and from school.

“Because we’re just coming out of the pandemic, because we have more kids than ever with social-emotional challenges, I had to say yes,” Ellis said.

After receiving the OK, Basler found Cooper and rescued him from West Virginia. She also spoke to K9 Caring Angels, a dog training group, to ask what type of dog would fit into her family and go well with her to school.

However, Cooper was not allowed on campus immediately because he had to be trained first. He spent nearly three weeks with the owner of K9 Caring Angels, Basler said, and she continued working with him after he returned. She took Cooper to her own children’s baseball and softball games so that he would be comfortable around people.

On June 25, Cooper was certified, allowing Basler to take him to school that year.

Cooper spends Wednesdays and Fridays at the elementary school and is usually there all day. Teachers can email Basler to set up an appointment for Cooper to drop by their classes, and when Basler conducts one-to-one sessions with students, they usually have the option of sitting on her office couch with Cooper.

If Cooper is pacing the hallways, Basler and Ellis said they might as well not be there.

“It’s an instant smile on a kid’s face just to see Cooper walking past them,” Basler said. “Everyone reached out their hand so they could run their hand over Cooper’s head and back. It brings joy to every child immediately.”

A few weeks ago, a co-counselor told Basler that a student she met said he didn’t like dogs. But as soon as Cooper’s leash was off, the student went over to pet him.

Everyone appreciates him, Ellis said, which is why he appeared in the school’s staff photo and why she jokes that he’s planning to take over her job.

“This is a great comfort to our children and our staff,” Ellis said. “We have a lot of employees who suffer from anxiety and other things. Cooper is that calming factor.”

And when he goes home with Basler and his vest and leash are taken away, “he knows that he no longer works,” says Basler.