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Pet therapy benefits NFSB students and staff

Chateauguay Valley Regional High School’s vice-principal, Sandra Grant, first began working with pet therapist Chantal Pion during the pandemic.

“We were noticing anxiety levels were rising, and we were worried about the students coming back,” says Grant, who was working at Howard S. Billings high school in Chateauguay at the time. “When I came to CVR as vice-principal, I said there was no way I was coming without my dogs!” she exclaims, referring to Pion and her team of professionally trained therapy animals.

Grant had previously worked at CVR, but shortly after returning last fall, she says she noticed a change. “There was a different kind of stress including past anxieties from COVID that needed to be dealt with,” she explains. “I wanted to do something and having had such great success with pet therapy at Billings, I knew it really worked.”

 

A Grade 8 student bonds with Monsieur Emile during a recent pet therapy session at CVR PHOTO Sarah Rennie

 

Grant turned to Megan L’Heureux, a community development agent with the New Frontiers School Board, who was tasked with finding a way to fund the project. L’Heureux reached out to the Montérégie West Community Network, a long-time partner with the NFSB, which was able to finance the pet therapy visits with a grant received through the Youth and mental health initiative offered by the Community Health and Social Services Network.

Once the funding was secured, Grant says they began to look at which students might benefit the most from this service. Results from a school survey indicated girls in Grade 8 were suffering from higher levels of anxiety, so the administration decided to focus their efforts on a core group of around 12 students from this grade level. “It is the end of a cycle. They are just on the cusp of senior school, when anxiety levels can rise even higher,” explains Grant.

The program, which started officially on March 14, includes 30-minute visits with the animals every two weeks, for a total of eight weeks. Pion has now been to CVR twice with her animal companions, including Happy the turtle dove, bunnies Choupette and Luna, dogs Beatrice, Rosalie, and Monsieur Emile, as well as a fluffy guinea pig. The students enter the room one-at-a-time and Pion observes them as they naturally gravitate toward one of the animals. Pion is provided with some background details on each student, and she works closely with Donna Roberts of CVR’s Mediation Station, who follows up with the girls after each session.

 

Students at HAECC spent some time in the company of professionally trained therapy animals on March 18 PHOTO HAECC

 

Pion says she has already noticed a difference in the participants from the first to second session. “We work on the students’ emotions,” she explains. “For some kids it is hard just to come into the school, and now they have a good reason,” she says. “We are not here to try to fix the problem, but to help them to live with this problem,” she adds. Spending time with the animals is calming, and bonding activities help to improve self-esteem and boost confidence.

“There are so many benefits. As a dog owner, I know,” says CVR principal Lynn Harkness, who admits they wish the program could be extended to the entire school. She says they are hoping to develop the program for next year. “We are very blessed to have this opportunity,” she continues, noting the animals are beneficial for her staff as well.

 

NFSB community development agent Megan LHeureux worked with CVR vice principal Sandra Grant and staff member Donna Roberts as well as Joanne Basilières of the MWCN to bring pet therapist Chantal Pion and her team of therapy animals to CVR PHOTO Sarah Rennie

 

HAECC students get in some pets

Pion also visited students at HAECC with her animals on March 18. The visit was organized by NFSB community learning technician Mckenzie Hooker in partnership with the MWCN. All six groups within the school, including the social integration classes, horticulture, and landscaping students, and those in the academic program, spent some time with the animal companions. Staff members were also able to enjoy some time with the animals before the end of the day.

“I wanted to bring a bit of happy into the school,” says Hooker, who admits the purpose of Pion’s visit was not the same as her work at CVR. “The students just melted toward the animals,” she says, confirming the initiative was a success.

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