FIELD TWP – North Woods’ most popular staff member roams the school, dispensing goodwill wherever she goes. Students turn to her when they’re stressed out, having a bad day or just feeling the need for a hug.
It’s all in a day’s work for Fiona, a certified therapy dog.
Fiona’s owners, Dave and Mary Pat Lamwers, were in the process of training their Newfoundland puppy when some other dog owners convinced the Lamwers that Fiona would make a good therapy dog. “She’s had this warm, friendly personality since she was an eight-week-old puppy,” said Lamwers. “She was meant to do this.”
The Lamwers contacted Pet Partners International, which trains and screens volunteers and their pets for programs in hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, schools and other facilities.
The program was established in 1990 to ensure that “both ends of the leash” are prepared to participate in animal-assisted activity and animal-assisted therapy programs. Pet Partners’ therapy animal program is the only national registry that requires volunteers and screening of animal-handler teams.
The Lamwers trained Fiona themselves through an online course offered by Pet Partners. But before Fiona could receive her license as a certified therapy dog, she had to pass a battery of tests.
Pet Partners gauged the dog’s reaction to a variety of situations. “They would have a bunch of people surround and cuddle her, run a wheelchair into her, or drop a bed pan to create a loud noise,” said Lamwers. “She can react, but she can’t bark or growl.”
In other tests, people would pretend to have a fight in front of the dog or put a hunk of liver sausage on the floor. “She has to be able to leave the sausage alone because dogs might encounter medications in some settings like hospitals and nursing homes,” Lamwers explained. “Some adult medications can be deadly for dogs.”
In addition, Fiona must be able to greet people nicely without jumping on them or biting them.
Lamwers also had to be approved by Pet Partners. “They test me to see how I react to what Fiona does, what kind of relationship we have and how well she listens to me,” said Lamwers.
Fiona and Lamwers are required to be tested every two years to maintain the license. They’re scheduled for their next text in Duluth later this month.
In her short time at North Woods, Fiona has made a difference. Sophmore Willow Koran and junior Montana Nelson both say Fiona helped them adjust when they moved to the area and started attending North Woods School.
“You both gravitated to her like she was your first friend here,” said Lamwers.
Nelson agreed. “I go and see her once every day,” she said. “She’s not judgmental. She’s fuzzy and I love her fuzziness.”
“She’s our furry therapist,” said Koran. “Whenever you’re having a bad day or just really stressed out, there’s this big, fluffy dog who just cuddles you and makes everything better.”
Dr. Edward Creagan, an oncologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, is a firm believer that pets help improve people’s health and well-being.
“A pet is a medication without side effects that has so many benefits,” said Creagan. “I can’t always explain it myself, but for years now I’ve seen how instances of having a pet is like an effective drug. It really does help people.”
Research has shown that petting a dog can reduce anxiety, which will lower levels of epinephrine and norepinephrine. Both are nervous system stimulants and the human body needs the proper level of these substances to reduce depression or anxiety. They affect heart rate, blood pressure, glucose level and many other important factors related to proper functioning of the body.
Other main benefits of therapy dogs are that animals can boost happiness, improve empathy, stimulate better pair bonding and promote a happier life.
“If students are having a meltdown, Fiona will sit with them. The kids will pet her and settle down,” said Lamwers. Other students will take Fiona for a walk and talk about their problems.
Lamwers added Fiona helps teach youngsters how to properly care for animals at home and how to be around dogs. On Thursday, Lamwers brought Fiona to a first-grade class to teach them the importance of asking permission from the owner before petting a dog.
Fiona will sometimes roam the halls and enter classrooms, said Lamwers. She’s welcome practically everywhere and some teachers will even come and get the dog to calm down their students.
“She likes coming to the lunchroom, but not for the kids,” Lamwers said. “She wants all the things that are dropped on the floor. Every dog is going to have his or her downfall and that’s her downfall — food. But she’s a picky eater, so that helps.”
The dog is beloved by everyone. One custodian keeps a box of dog treats handy for Fiona. The dog even has her own security badge with her photo and the name “Miss Lamwers” on it.
Fiona is so popular that Lamwers jokingly laments that she’s become invisible. “When students see us walking down the hall, they always say hi to Fiona,” said Lawmers, who added it’s like she doesn’t even exist.
But there’s no jealousy on Lamwers’ part. The bond between her and Fiona is obvious and the dog, which has even learned some simple sign language, is obedient and loyal to her human companion.
The two start each school day greeting students as they arrive. The kids often break into grins when they spot Fiona.
“The best job she does is she makes people smile,” said Lamwers. “No matter where she goes, she makes the kids smile. If you can make a kid smile, isn’t that the best thing?”