- Associated Press - Sunday, May 8, 2016

SUMTER, S.C. (AP) - Each Wednesday, students at Cherryvale Elementary School run up to pet “Sparky” and “Max,” who eagerly wag their tails and give a big smile on their weekly visit to the school.

The two schnauzers are therapy dogs belonging to Sumter resident Dennie Sides.

Therapy dogs are pets that may be trained to provide affection and comfort to people in schools, hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, hospices and disaster areas.

Sides and volunteer Diane Smith make rounds with the dogs to classrooms, including special needs classes.

Sides’ dogs are Certified Animal Assistance Therapy Pets with Paws for Friendship Inc., a nonprofit organization of volunteers who use their personal pets to help others, according to its website, www.pawsforfriendshipinc.org.

Sides and Smith go out to six schools and five community centers with the two dogs at various times throughout each month.

Children have the opportunity to pet the animals, and some even get to walk them for a few minutes in the hallway.

Smith said she started volunteering with Sides after benefiting from pet therapy herself. Her late husband, Marvin Larrimore, who died from cancer, was at a hospice where a therapy cat patrolled the hallways.

“The cat provided comfort to both the patients and family members of the patient,” she said. “This seems for me to be the best way to give back to others.”

Linda Bach, Cherryvale’s lead special education teacher, said having the dogs visit her classroom calms the students.

“It gives them an opportunity to interact with the pets and improves their ability to interact with the world,” she said. “Some of our students like to read to the dogs. Some even learn how to hold them on a leash and walk with them.”

Bach said the students have become more social as a result of the dogs’ visits.

“The students become more energized when the dogs come into the classroom,” said Jurline Younge, a special needs teacher. “It’s therapeutic for them. When the dogs leave, there’s almost a lingering effect of calmness.”

Sides, who’s been involved as a volunteer with pet therapy for about 10 years, usually does a safety presentation with the students. This includes how to approach a dog they might meet and how to pet it. But the presentation also covers 10 things not to do when approaching a dog.

“Some students may not know how to interact with a dog for the first time and how to take care of a pet properly,” said Mandy Flynn, a third-grade teacher. “This program covers those topics.”

For more information on local pet therapy, contact Dennie Sides, Sumter chapter coordinator for Paws For Friendship, Inc., at (803) 236-8163 or [email protected]

For more information, visit www.pawsforfriendshipinc.org.

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Information from: The Sumter Item, https://www.theitem.com

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