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Dog with tongue out

Two dogs and a ring-necked dove help Orange County high schoolers de-stress after test

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — Scarlett Lirocchi, 14, walked outside after taking her Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test on Wednesday, Oct. 11, and any stress that had built up during the three-hour exam evaporated when she gazed at Zoe, Cloud and Blue.

Zoe is a long-haired Chihuahua, Blue an American Staffordshire Terrier. Cloud is a ring-necked dove. All three are trained, licensed therapy animals.

Lirocchi, a ninth-grader at Saddleback Valley Christian School in San Juan Capistrano, stood in line with other students to pet and interact with Blue. Then she went prancing across the blacktop with joy.

“I’m nott stressed at all anymore!” she proclaimed happily. “When I went into the testing room I was, but not anymore.”

Saddleback Valley Christian introduced something new on campus Wednesday – a Post-Test De-Stressing Therapy Animal Station. It was waiting for some 280 ninth-, 10th- and11th-grade students as they emerged from the PSAT testing for their lunch break.

The school ’s testing coordinator, Meredith Reuter, brought the therapy program to campus. She is a former therapy dog handler who knew of therapy dogs’ stress-reduction success on college campuses. So she invited the Animal Health Foundation (AHF) and Pet Partners Program to bring it to a new level.

“This is the first high school we’ve been to,” said Jan Vincent, director of AHF’s Caring Creatures Program based in Lake Forest. “We’ve been to a couple of different law schools, as well as UCI and Cal State Fullerton, and usually during finals week, we have more requests than we have therapy animal teams that can come in.”

Vincent said studies have shown that interaction with animals helps lower blood pressure and reduce stress. Therapy pets and their handlers also go into elementary schools around Orange County to help second- and third-graders graders who have reading difficulties.

At Saddleback Valley Christian, the opportunity to pet and interact with therapy animals was announced weeks ago to students and their parents. There was no sign-up, just a walk up.

For about an hour, a steady stream of students lined up.

“I have the worst job,” said Janel Keider, a handler with Pet Partners who was there to move students along so other students could have time with the animals.

“It’s so hard making the kids stop visiting with the animals, because I know how much it helps them,” Keider said. “It makes them happy.”

Most, when asked, said it wasn’t stress that put them there, just a chance to meet the animals. Others noted that students with stress may not show it.

“I just like to pet dogs so I came over here,” said Jackson Combs, 16. “If some people get stressed, why not help them out? But I’m just happy to pet dogs.”

“I think we should have this after every test,” said Mallory Nogle, 15.

Reuter, when asked if she felt stress or curiosity drew students to the de-stressing station, said “a little bit of both.” She didn’t think it’s an overreach to bring therapy pets onto a high school campus to reduce anxiety, having seen how popular it is at the college level.

“More schools keep asking us to come back,” Vincent said. “That is kind of the proof.”

Christin Kelso, a Ladera Ranch resident, was the handler who brought Blue, her American Staffordshire Terrier, commonly known as a pit bull.

“I do a lot of colleges and schools,” she said. “I like, hopefully, changing some people’s perceptions about the breed.

“People are often intimidated by her, but luckily in this arena they know that they are a dog that has special training and has been tested to be in an environment. In my day-to-day life, people are often intimidated, which always hurts my feelings, not hers so much.”

Barb Lanni of Dana Point celebrated Zoe’s eighth birthday with the visit to Saddleback Valley Christian. She said when she began working with Zoe, she found the dog “brings joy and calmness to people.”

When she started taking Zoe to interact with residents at a board-and- care facility, she was taken by “the way Zoe sent love to them, including even the caregivers.”

Mission Viejo’s Daleen Comer, who has a therapy dog besides Cloud the dove, said she takes the dog to Mission Hospital and takes Cloud to schools.

“We work with kids who are afraid to read,” she said.

Asked if she felt that Cloud had relieved some stress at Saddleback Valley Christian, she said, “I don’t know. They all just seemed excited to see the bird. He’s such a novelty.”

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