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Iron River School students paws for wellness

Meet Iron River School's most popular visitor: Gemma. "Everyone loves Gemma," expressed principal Karen Draycott. The three-year-old chocolate lab is the school's new wellness dog.
Meet Gemma, Iron River School’s very own wellness dog.

Meet Iron River School's most popular visitor: Gemma.

"Everyone loves Gemma," expressed principal Karen Draycott.

The three-year-old chocolate lab is the school's new wellness dog.

Certified through Chimo Animal Assisted Wellness and Learning (CAAWLS), an Edmonton-based organization that trains wellness and therapy animals, since June of last year, Gemma has become an instant favourite at Iron River School.

According to her handler and owner, Grade 1 and 2 teacher and student services team coordinator, Ashley Carroll, there has been nothing but positive feedback since her school introduced the program.

Gemma's role is to act as a calm and non-judgemental presence in the school. Sometimes she will stop in and visit a classroom, while on other occasions she can be found in the library.

“When Gemma is in our school, the students love seeing her. One of the activities they enjoy doing is reading with Gemma,” Draycott described. “When we ask them what they like about having Gemma, they say, ‘She’s just a really good listener.'"

Carroll said the one-on-one time students spend reading to Gemma not only allows them to build a special bond with her, but "it also gives them a non-judgemental presence to just listen."

“A lot of times it just helps to relax kids and they enjoy reading to the dog. It’s a little different than reading to a person,” she continued.

Carroll and Gemma volunteer their time, so there's no cost to the school for the program.

Draycott emphasized how privileged they are to have a wellness dog to benefit from.

“Studies that have been done by universities have shown that having a wellness animal really helps with reductions in stress and an increase in happiness."

For Carroll, bringing Gemma to the school isn't work.

“I’ve always been really passionate about animals, and I really enjoy spending time with them, especially my own pets,” she told the Nouvelle. “When I did my masters, my research was on the perception of the affects of animal-assisted therapy on stress and anxiety. Just going through that process and seeing the positive impact that working with a therapy dog had on the group of kids that I interviewed, made me want to go further with my own animals and see how they can help people.”

It was witnessing it first-hand that inspired Carroll to do what it takes to get her pets, and herself, certified.

Carroll went above and beyond when it came to teaching Gemma a thing or two about her job.

“In the fall of 2017, we did a prepare your dog for animal-assisted interventions through the Dreamcatcher Nature-Assisted Therapy,” explained Carroll.

The pair also took part in an advanced version of the course the following year in preparation for the CAAWLS certification test. 

Over the years, Carroll has taken a long list of courses that have helped grow her knowledge on the topic.

“I did an internship in the summer of 2017, it was a four-day internship called Caring for Critters. It was an opportunity to network with other people putting animal-assisted interventions into their practice in whatever their profession was,” detailed Carroll. "It was an introduction to working with your animal in a professional environment.”

During her training, she was able to role-play animal-assisted interventions and learn about animal body language and communication.

She also discovered how to match "the scope of practice for your dog or animal with what you do."

This isn't the first time Carroll has had a dog go through the training.

Oakley was a Gemma's older sister. She was originally chosen for the position that Gemma's in now, but unfortunately, before the school year even started, she passed away.

“We did some volunteer work with them and had things in place to have Oakley come to our school, but she got sick with osteosarcoma and we ended up losing her right before the school year,” Carroll said. “She had the perfect temperament, and Gemma was only a puppy then, so I started working with Gemma as well.”

Right now, they're testing the waters to see how Gemma does at the school. Carroll explained why it's important to gauge Gemma's mental health as they work.

"It’s important that they have breaks. When Gemma’s at school, she can work for an hour to an hour and a half… and then she requires about a half hour break."

Currently, Gemma is only at Iron River School once or twice a week, but when she's there, the students, teachers, and faculty can't get enough of her.

“They were really excited, and I’ve had kids from other classes ask when she’s coming back because they want to see her,” Carroll noted.

Gemma is kept on a leash when she's at the school, and waits for someone to come to her, not the other way around.

“It’s important that people approach the dog themselves, so if someone isn’t comfortable approaching them, then they don’t have to,” explained Carroll, adding she has noticed a difference in the classrooms that have had a chance to meet Gemma.

Draycott said, “She seems to lower everyone’s stress levels when she walks into the building... Everyone loves Gemma."

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