‘Calming factor’: How a therapy dog brightens the day at a Prince William Co. elementary school

Twice a week at Minnieville Elementary in Dale City, Virginia, it’s hard for students to concentrate as Cooper roams the hall.

Whether he’s with Sarah Basler, a counselor at the Prince William County school, or in a classroom, he gets all the attention.

Cooper, a 1-year-old Portuguese water dog. (Courtesy Prince William County Public Schools)

Cooper, a 1-year-old Portuguese water dog, is approaching the halfway point of his inaugural school year, during which his daytime role as a therapy dog has helped students and staff alike.

Principal Deborah Ellis said the idea wasn’t a new one, because she often saw posts of therapy dogs visiting Enterprise Elementary on social media. Nonetheless, when Basler approached Ellis about the possibility of bringing a pup into the school, Ellis didn’t hesitate.

“It’s not even ‘Hi Ms. Basler’ anymore,” Basler said. “It’s ‘Where’s Cooper?’ It’s been an adventure.”

The concept wasn’t new to the school, either. Basler said therapy dogs had stopped by the school before, and when they did, teachers were “thrilled” and “the kids, you just saw their eyes light up.”

So, Basler approached Ellis to ask whether she would allow a therapy dog if Basler became the puppy’s owner and would assume responsibility for transporting the dog to and from school.

“Because we’re just coming out of the pandemic, because we have more children than ever with social-emotional challenges, I had to say yes,” Ellis said.

Once she got the OK, Basler found Cooper and rescued him from West Virginia. She also spoke to K9 Caring Angels, a dog training group, to ask what type of dog would fit her family and do well going to school with her.

Cooper wasn’t immediately allowed on campus, though, because he first had to be trained. He spent nearly three weeks with the owner of K9 Caring Angels, Basler said, and she continued to work with him after he came back. She took Cooper to her own kids’ baseball and softball games, so that he could get comfortable around people.

On June 25, Cooper was certified, enabling Basler to bring him to school this year.

Cooper spends Wednesdays and Fridays at the elementary school, and he’s typically there all day. Teachers can email Basler to schedule a time for Cooper to swing by their classes, and when Basler does individual sessions with students, they usually have the chance to sit on her office couch with Cooper.

When Cooper strolls up and down the halls, Basler and Ellis said, they might as well not be there.

“It’s an instant smile on a child’s face just to see Cooper walk past them,” Basler said. “Everybody’s hand is out, so they can run their hand on Cooper’s head and on his back. It brings instant joy to every kid.”

A few weeks ago, a co-counselor told Basler that a student she was meeting with said he didn’t like dogs. But once Cooper’s leash was off, the student walked over to start petting him.

Everyone appreciates him, Ellis said, which is why he appeared in the school’s staff photo and why she jokes that he’s plotting to take her job.

“It’s a big comfort to our kids and our staff,” Ellis said. “We have a lot of staff members that suffer with anxiety and other things. Cooper is that calming factor.”

And when he goes home with Basler and his vest and leash are taken off, “He knows that he’s not working anymore,” Basler said.

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

Like WTOP on Facebook and follow WTOP on Twitter and Instagram to engage in conversation about this article and others.

Get breaking news and daily headlines delivered to your email inbox by signing up here.

© 2022 WTOP. All Rights Reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up