‘A pet with a purpose.’ Therapy dogs help promote higher learning, less stress in schools

By Bob Doda, News 12 Digital Producer
It was all smiles in Donna Atkinson’s health class when Libby, a certified therapy dog, visited earlier this month at Smithtown High School in Suffolk County.
Libby was just as happy, but calm, under the helm of Lou Gambeski – a former coach and teacher who spent 40 years at the high school before his retirement.
Gambeski, known for his intensity and passion for whatever he gets involved with, says he needed to fill a void when his previous dog died.
“Pet ownership is a very personal thing,” he says. “…But I wanted to have a pet with a purpose.”
That’s when his journey began with Libby – a 3-year-old cane corso, also known as an Italian mastiff. Libby has her American Kennel Club Good Citizen certification, is certified by the Alliance of Therapy Dogs and is a member of the Reading Education Assistance Dog program.
Though it may sound bizarre, studies have shown that reading to a dog raises the confidence and tenacity for those learning to read.
For the past two years, Libby and Lou have been visiting schools to explain the role dogs play in the lives of humans on a biochemical level. According to a study from the National Institutes of Health: “The presence of a dog in an educational setting seems to support concentration, attention, motivation, and relaxation reflecting reduction of high stress levels which inhibit effective learning and performance.”
Gambeski also says that it’s a scientific fact that dogs just make people feel better.
In Parkland, Florida therapy dogs helped students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School heal following the shooting there on Valentine’s Day 2018. They even made the school year book.
Gambeski and Atkinson both agree that every school in the nation should have a therapy dog “if it’s done right.”
“I’m sold,” says Gambeski. “If you do it right, I don’t think there is any question that it’s going to improve the school environment wherever the dog may be found. There’s no question about it. “
Libby and Lou are staying busy in 2020. They will be on the volunteer staff at Hilton Head Hospital in South Carolina, as well as two libraries where children will read to Libby. They were also invited to visit the University of South Carolina Beaufort for stress reduction days for college students.