Healing hounds: Therapy dogs brighten the halls at OMES

A student pets Simon during a visit to OMES. Simon and fellow therapy dog, Max, often stop by classrooms to greet students during their visits. (Reporter Photo / Molly Davidson)

A student pets Simon during a visit to OMES. Simon and fellow therapy dog, Max, often stop by classrooms to greet students during their visits. (Reporter Photo / Molly Davidson)

By MOLLY DAVIDSON / Staff Writer

NORTH SHELBY—Sounds of happy laughter and smiling faces followed therapy dogs Max and Simon as they strode through the halls of Oak Mountain Elementary School to counselor Hayden Belisle’s classroom on Oct. 20.

“They’re bringing a smile to everyone’s face and starting the day off in a great way,” Belisle said of the two highly trained therapy dogs.

Max and Simon, and their handlers Beth Haynes and Margie Little, are a regular sight at OMES, visiting the school each week to work with students.

“Their uses are endless,” Belisle said. “The kids just really connect with (Max and Simon), it really works well with them.”

Therapy dogs can be used in a variety of situations, from helping to motivate children to easing a student’s transition to a new school. Max and Simon usually work with small groups to best tailor to student needs.

With its many new experiences and transitions, elementary school can be stressful for students, Belisle said, explaining she often sees anxiety in students. Max and Simon help alleviate stress by making students comfortable and helping them open up about their anxiety.

“It’s so funny how intuitive these dogs are, it’s just so healing,” Belisle said. “It’s so fascinating to watch.”

Max and Simon also help students build academic confidence. For example, if a student is apprehensive to read aloud, he or she is invited to stop by Belisle’s classroom and read to Max or Simon.

“It’s pretty empowering for these kids,” Belisle said.

Max and Simon aren’t just for students, they also visit teachers.

“If I know that something is going on, or a teacher is having a stressful day, we’ll (stop by),” Belisle said.

OMES has worked with therapy dogs for seven years, and Belisle said she has seen incredible results.

“There are so many stories I could tell, I could talk for days and days,” Belisle said. “We want school to be a happy place, we want (students) to love it. This is just such a climate and culture builder.”

Max and Simon, and their handlers Haynes and Little, are part of the nonprofit therapeutic dog team, Hand in Paw. Both the dogs and handlers are highly trained to assist in a number of situations, from schools to hospitals.

Simon and Little have work with OMES for seven years, and Max and Haynes have been with OMES for five years. Over time, the therapy dog team has become a part of the OMES family, Belisle said.

“It’s hard to hold back the tears sometimes,” Belisel said. “At the end of the day, if we can brighten one kid’s day, it’s worth it, but it goes so far beyond that.”