Late spring is final exams season in Estonia, but it isn't just humans taking exams — last week, six therapy dogs passed their professional qualification exams and will now begin working with children in schools and therapy centers.
Over the weekend, Luu successfully completed their therapy dog exam before beginning work at Kuusalu High School, about half an hour east of Tallinn.
"They help reduce stress," Kuusalu High School teacher and study dog handler Reet Reinsalu explained. "If a child has a scarier assignment — performing in front of the class, reciting a poem — it may be easier to do so to the dog. As a class teacher, what I look at is if there is some topic where I see that involving the dog would be a help to the kids, then I can teach the lesson in such a way that study dog Luu is along with me and helping."
"I learned about clickers — I didn't know something like that even existed," said Gerda, a student.
"I learned that dogs and people aren't as different as I used to think," classmate Mirjam added.
Study and therapy dog services have been offered in various parts of Estonia for nearly ten years already. According to Estonian Association of Assistance and Therapy Dogs (EATKÜ) board member Maarja Tali, it's easier for people who need assistance to connect with dogs.
"By inviting a dog onto the team, a maybe difficult, maybe painful process becomes an enjoyable game," Tali explained. "And these clients are often people who have a hard time communicating with other people." She noted that among them are people with speech disabilities, very small children, and people with serious mental health issues. "It often happens that it's easier for them to make contact and connect with an animal or dog."
3.5-year-old Jack Russel Elli works at TegevusTe Developmental Therapy Center in Tallinn's Nõmme District, where they and their four-legged coworkers provide support to children of various ages and with various backgrounds.
"We offer dog-inclusive therapy as well here," said Kristi Viimsalu, an occupational therapist at TegevusTe. "I think it's a fantastic opportunity not available elsewhere."
Success is based on a dog's positive relationship with their young patient.
"We have to assess the child and their needs well," Viimsalu explained. "Do they need a big and calm or rather an active and enthusiastic dog? What are the goals of the therapy, and what should a dog know how to do, and what support can they provide the child?"
In theory, anyone can train their dog to be a therapy dog. Starting this fall, Tallinn University (TLÜ) will also be offering a microdegree program in human-animal interaction.
Editor: Aili Vahtla