Ministry comes in a variety of forms, but at the heart of it is the desire to meet the needs of another person. Georgia-Cumberland Academy (GCA) is getting creative in its ongoing commitment to minister to students, and to provide them with a whole person education that not only prepares them academically, but also meets their mental, spiritual, and physical needs. Thus, the school has adopted two Australian Bernedoodle therapy dogs to address the mental health needs of its student body.
“GCA started looking into this option because pets have a calming effect on people during counseling sessions or just with students experiencing anxiety, homesickness, or other stressful situations,” said Serge Gariepy, GCA principal. “The therapy dog program is a resource to help our counselors, chaplains, deans, and faculty meet the emotional and mental health needs of our students.”
Thanks to the generosity of GCA alumna Cathy Becker Prather, class of 1987, the school adopted the puppies and plans to send them through a training regimen that will ultimately result in them receiving the Canine Good Citizen certification offered by the American Kennel Club. GCA staff members Chris Harris, Ph.D., counselor, guidance and testing, and Susan Jenkins, business manager, will also undergo special certification training as the dogs’ handlers.
“Research highlights dogs’ ability to uplift mood and well-being, enriching the school experience. As a parent of two autistic children who have greatly benefited from dogs, I’m thrilled to help bring this support to GCA,” said Prather, a family nurse practitioner in Calhoun, Ga., and owner of Happy Top Doodles.
Pets have been shown to lower anxiety in their owners, so GCA is excited to welcome the two puppies — named Georgia and Koda — to the school family. GCA wants to help students develop positive coping skills, and thrive in high school and beyond; thus, the therapy dogs are another facet in GCA’s growing student services.
With more and more students struggling with depression, anxiety, stress, and loneliness, the school has already expanded its counseling services, and this is just one more step in ministering to its students. Shelby Miller is a junior at GCA, and just one of the many students who enjoy taking a break during the day to pet the puppies. “I absolutely love both Georgia and Koda! I’ve gotten to interact with both of them, and I can say they are so helpful when you’re stressed or upset. I definitely think they bring needed support to us as students. They are obviously adorable and just what the school needed!”
There are so many benefits to therapy dogs. “They are non-judgmental, they are excellent listeners, they love unconditionally, they never break confidentiality, and so much more,” said Harris. “Our program intends to bring these animals into the family of GCA, where they will be a part of daily life on campus, and can be used in crisis situations and in everyday activities. Once fully trained, we expect the dogs to spend most of their days on campus, at events, in classrooms, and [in] counseling sessions.”
Georgia-Cumberland | February 2024