Officials discuss benefits of therapy dog at Moss School

Dog is lying on back on the bed - selective focus

METUCHEN – In an effort to “reduce the duration and frequency of very challenging and very destructive behavior” of students, Moss School Principal Richard Cohen has included a pilot program for a therapy dog in the proposed budget for Moss School.

Moss School houses a special need pre-school and a kindergarten program.

There are six half-day sessions of kindergarten accommodating 130 children. The school has three sessions of the Metuchen Intervention Pre-School Program (MIPP), which is a program for children between the ages of 3 and 5 who have been identified as having specific needs which can be corrected or lessened when addressed at an early age.

Cohen, who also serves as assistant superintendent, presented his proposed budget at a Board of Education meeting on Feb. 5.

Cohen said discussion of a therapy dog, which had been a request of the Moss School Leadership team, began in January 2018.

“There has been a lot of discussion and a lot of work done over a long period of time,” he said.

Cohen said the Moss School Leadership team had picked a goal of reducing the duration and frequency of very challenging and very destructive behaviors.

“At Moss we have three-, four- and five-year-old [students]. … Emotional regulation is not mastered yet, it takes years to build,” he said.

Cohen said sometimes emotional regulation is beyond a student’s skill set. He said when disruption occurs, it often takes numerous staff to offer support and address the matter, which can become a security matter for the students.

“We’re trying to look at different ways to reduce the frequency of those outbursts and occasions and the duration of them,” he said. “There’s a lot of staff training we are doing and one of our team members had suggested a therapy dog.”

Cohen said when the suggestion was made last year, it brought a lot of concerns, including costs. He said the prospect to bring a therapy dog comes with the initial cost, which totals approximately $7,000 and ongoing costs, which totals approximately $2,000. He said without a plan, the Moss School budget could not take on the costs.

“The initial costs is 60 percent of our budget,” he said. “The Metuchen Education Foundation (MEF) was a good way to try to figure out a solution to fund a dog.”

Cohen said MEF has offered a grant to cover the initial cost. He said the proposal is to allocate $800 in the Moss School budget, which would be a recurring annual cost, and the rest of the funds for ongoing costs would come from some student activity funds, which the school receives each year, and the other costs would be covered by the host family.

The host family is Cohen and his family. He said the leadership team has researched the concerns and are ready to push the proposal forward.

Board member Jonathan Lifton said he remembers having a serious discussion about having a therapy dog shared among the schools; however, the discussion never had a final determination.

“There were policy implications that were never fully [fleshed] out. … There were custody issues with the dog,” he said.

Cohen said if the funds were approved, they were looking to have a simultaneous discussion on the policy and custody concerns.

Lifton said it is premature to put $800 in the budget for an item that is not clear if the board policies would be amended to allow for a dog.

“The board currently doesn’t have a policy that allows for a therapy dog,” he said.

Board President Justin Manley echoed the sentiments of Lifton.

“There were significant concerns [in the initial discussion about a therapy dog],” he said. “This is not about the efficacy [of a therapy dog] because we recognize the value of it.”

Manley said the significant concerns include insurance, long-term maintenance, and acquisition of the dog.

Further discussion about a therapy dog will be discussed in finance, policy and curriculum committees.