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Ayer Shirley schools welcome therapy dog

Meet Psychologist Beth Foley and Lady, a golden retriever offering comfort for students

Dr. Mary Malone, superintendent of the Ayer Shirley Regional School District, with the new therapy dog available at the Ayer Shirley Regional High School
Dr. Mary Malone, superintendent of the Ayer Shirley Regional School District, with the new therapy dog available at the Ayer Shirley Regional High School

AYER – Students at Ayer Shirley Regional Middle and High schools will have a new visitor roaming the halls between classes: Lady, a 6-year-old purebred golden retriever who serves as the school’s therapy dog.

Lady was first introduced at a recent meeting of the Ayer Shirley Regional School Committee by Mary Malone, superintendent of the district. Lady came as a package deal with the high school’s new psychologist, Beth Foley.

Malone said earlier this month that the package is a plus for the schools, saying that the hiring of Foley — and Lady — is a way for the school to “be on the cutting edge.” Lady will be used during Foley’s solo and group counseling sessions with students. She will also be walked around the school hallways on a leash by Foley, usually in the morning, when students are arriving for classes, though she won’t be allowed in the cafeteria and will avoid students with allergies to animals.

“It benefits the entire school community,” Malone said. “All students are allowed to pat Lady and interact with her, which really produces a culture of calmness and relaxation, a sense of comfort to have an animal around.”

Malone said the idea for a therapy dog first came from district Special Education Director Tara Bozek, who alerted her that Foley had applied for the open position of school psychologist, noting that she had a therapy dog with her. Malone expressed her interest in bringing a therapy dog to the district, and the School Committee agreed that she should pursue the possibility.

Beth Foley, the new psychologist at Ayer Shirley Regional High School, with her therapy dog Lady

As Malone described it, Foley and Lady coming to the district was pure serendipity.

“It wasn’t that we were looking for a different form. It is something that in life, comes your way.” Malone said. “We want kids to be well-adjusted and to be able to learn coping skills and make adjustments in life as we all do when life presents trauma, problems and anxiety.”

Foley said she got Lady in the spring of 2018 and, before coming to Ayer Shirley, worked with her in Fitchburg Public schools. From her prior experience, Foley found that Lady helped both staff and students in reducing stress and lifting overall spirits.

“It helps students who aren’t especially wanting to open up,” Foley said. “They feel more relaxed and more comfortable. It’s a great conversation starter as I’m a new face in the building. They share about their dogs and their experiences. In groups, she’s very calming because she can be there to listen with me, but they often hug her and pet her.”

Foley noted that any dog can be a therapy dog, depending on its temperament. Therapy Dog International offers a test to determine a dog’s temperament, ability to be around other noises, dealing with people with physical ailments and listening skills. In the case of any student who might feel uncomfortable near Lady, Foley said she can simply have the dog lie down in the corner while the therapist sits between the student and the dog.

According to Foley, students and staff have been “pretty happy” with Lady’s presence so far. She specifically cited a case involving a non-verbal student who uses a device to communicate

“Last week, he saw Lady for the first time so we took a picture and put it in his device,” Foley said. “Tuesday, I went in and sat on the floor with Lady and he pet her for the first time. Yesterday when we walked in, he used his device to say, ‘Hi Lady.’ When we left, he used his device to say, ‘Bye Lady.’ Later in the day, he used his device to request her. The staff was very, very proud because it was very unusual for him. He was very happy.”