A School’s Best Friend


TALES BLOG /A School's Best Friend

HIP Therapy Teams bring comfort and joy to special needs students

“Our visits from Harriet and Herbert are the highlight of our month!” declares Sarah Fischer, MA, a special education teacher at Mountain Brook Junior High.

Hand in Paw Therapy Team Harriet and Herbert have been visiting Mrs. Ficher’s classroom for the past year as part of our School’s Best Friend program. We visit students who have physical and developmental disabilities. Working directly with schools and educators, we tailor our services for each class. Depending on the students’ needs, a visit might focus on reading comprehension, speech therapy, or even school-based physical therapy.

Sometimes the kids we see are non-verbal and may be fearful of the animals, but with consistent visits and using different techniques learned in training, we create a safe environment for the kids who are initially hesitant so that they can learn about dogs and become friends with them.

Custom-made activity vests like the one worn by Herbert (pictured above) create a fun and interactive way for students to engage with the therapy dog. For example, when Mrs. Fischer reads books to the classroom, students are given cards that correspond to the story. When Mrs. Fischer gets to the part of the story depicted on a card, the students with that card insert it into the corresponding pocket in the activity vest. This helps improve reading comprehension while creating a low stress, affirming environment for the students.

“Not only have I noticed a difference in functional life skills in our students revolving around caring for animals,” says Mrs. Fischer, “but I have also recognized a level of calmness, attentiveness and engagement not present in lessons without a therapy dog.”

Beth Hontzas’ daughter Athena (pictured above) has been receiving Hand in Paw animal-assisted therapy services since she was in preschool at The Bell Center and throughout her time in public school. Now a teenager, Athena is a student in Mrs. Fischer’s class at Mountain Brook Junior High.


“It brings her so much joy to be around these sweet dogs. It also builds her confidence while nurturing and loving these animals. The dogs show unconditional love to the kids and the kids can express themselves back to them. Dogs are so healing for all of us. I’m so grateful that HIP volunteers to help our kids!” —Beth Hontzas

The feeling is mutual — we’re incredibly grateful for parents like Beth, program partners like MBJH, and donors like you who make these visits possible.

School’s Best Friend is currently at Mountain Brook Junior High, Mt. Laurel Elementary, Inverness Elementary, Helena Intermediate, Grantswood Elementary, and Cherokee Bend Elementary.

Because of your support, we are able to provide these services to our program partners completely free of charge. Thank you!

To support Hand in Paw’s animal-assisted therapy programs like School’s Best Friend, use the envelope provided or donate online at handinpaw.org/donate.

This article was written by Brittany Filby. It originally appeared in the Summer 2024 print edition of Golden News.