CHARLESTON, WV – Gov. Jim Justice and First Lady Cathy Justice today announced the first statewide school therapy dog program in West Virginia.
The program, called Friends With Paws, will place certified therapy dogs in schools across the state, providing companionship and comfort for students in need of a boost.
The program will be a partnership between the Governor’s Office, West Virginia Communities In Schools (CIS) Nonprofit, and the West Virginia Department of Education.
Therapy dogs will be placed in schools within CIS counties where students are disproportionately affected by poverty, substance misuse, or other at-risk situations, and are in the greatest need of a support animal. The dogs will serve as a healthy and friendly outlet for these students to address trauma and other social-emotional issues.
“Friends With Paws is going to give our kids the best gift of all: unconditional love,” Gov. Justice said. “I love every single one of our kids in this state. I say all the time, our kids are the greatest treasure we have. But, unfortunately, some of our kids aren’t loved to the magnitude that they deserve. Having therapy dogs in our classrooms is going to make a lot of kids’ days brighter.”
“When you go into schools that have a therapy dog, it is an amazing feeling,” First Lady Justice said. “They feel right at home, and it’s incredibly uplifting for children who may be struggling or grieving in their lives. So this is a really wonderful program. I am so excited to get started.”
The first therapy dog through Friends With Paws will be placed at Welch Elementary School in McDowell County. He is a male Black Labrador Retriever and his name is Coal.
More dogs will be placed in other CIS schools across West Virginia throughout the year, including schools in Upshur, Lewis, and Pocahontas counties.
Buckhannon Academy Elementary School in Upshur County will receive a male Golden Labradoodle named Foster.
Lewis County High School in Lewis County will receive a female Yellow Labrador named Jasper.
Green Bank Elementary-Middle School in Pocahontas County will receive a male Yellow Labrador named Jet.
Friends With Paws also plans to place a therapy dog in Hardy County later this summer.
The initial goal of the program is to place a total of at least 10 dogs in West Virginia schools in 2022.
The Governor and First Lady were joined for today’s ceremony by Executive Assistant to the First Lady Vicki Shannon and Special Assistant to the First Lady Katie Morris, who the First Lady announced will serve as the state’s Dog Czar for the Friends With Paws program.
“We are very happy to be able to bring animals into our classrooms to provide social and emotional support that is so important for our students,” Shannon said. “Over the past two years, everyone has been through a lot, especially our children. We want to do everything we can to lift their spirits. With these dogs, our children will have access to unconditional love that may not otherwise be accessible. It’s really terrific.”
“It’s a great day for several of our West Virginia schools that are set to receive a dog through Friends With Paws, and it wouldn’t be possible without the support of our wonderful Governor and First Lady,” Morris said. “There are so many good things that these dogs will bring. These therapy dogs, who are trained by people with a combined 50 years of experience, can help reduce anxiety in classrooms around the state and just be a friend for our students.”
Therapy dogs are specially trained to provide comfort and support to people in various tense environments. They can help people feel at ease, improve their mood, relieve anxiety, and remove social barriers. Therapy dogs are highly trained and certified to show their ability to work in stressful environments, ignore distractions, and provide therapy to people with diverse backgrounds and circumstances.
The therapy dogs will belong to each individual school and will become part of the community.
A 2019 study published by the National Institute of Health found that a dog’s presence in the classroom promotes positive mood and provides significant anti-stress effects on the body.
In addition, research shows that the simple act of petting animals releases an automatic relaxation response. Therapy animals lower anxiety and help people relax, provide comfort, reduce loneliness, and increase mental stimulation. They are also shown to lower blood pressure and improve cardiovascular health, reduce the amount of medications some people need, help control breathing in those with anxiety, and diminish overall physical pain, among other profound benefits.
“One of the most important things that these dogs can do for children is to help them read aloud, because some children may not be confident in their reading skills, but when they can sit down and read with a dog, it’s been highly beneficial,” Shannon said. “So we’re thrilled, and we can’t wait to celebrate the arrival of Coal very soon.”
“I’m incredibly excited because anything and everything we can do to make life better for our kids, we need to be doing it,” Gov. Justice said. “We’ve seen it with Babydog, just how therapeutic dogs can be for us all. She loves everybody and she always makes everybody smile. She brings a lot of joy to people, and that’s exactly what these dogs with Friends With Paws will bring to our kids.
“The most incredible thing about a dog is they never have a bad day,” Gov. Justice continued. “When these kids show up, these dogs will show them love like you can’t imagine, and these kids will know it. That unconditional love is transcendent. It makes life better. It will make their performance in the classroom better. With all our kids have to deal with today – between the pressures of social media, the bullying, everything that’s going on in their lives, plus some being hungry – anything we can do to make their days a little brighter, we need to do.”